From the book by: Susan Scott
By late 1925 Clarice Cliff was considered Mr. Colley’s protégé. She moved into a small apartment in Hanley much to her family’s disapproval. At the same time Colley Shorter gave Clarice an office next to his at the Newport Pottery. Clarice and Colley spent more and more time behind the closed door of her studio. Neither her fellow workers nor the other directors approved of this relationship and Clarice grew more and more isolated. Colley Shorter decided that Clarice needed formal training and paid for her to go to the Royal College of Art in London for three months in 1927. In the fall she was sent to Paris where she roamed the galleries and museums seeking ideas. Once again events conspired in Clarice’s favour. Just as the war had secured her a place at Wilkinson’s, so in 1926 the General Strike in England had extended coal shortages. Factories were desperate for ware to sell. When Wilkinson’s bought Newport Pottery in 1920, they inherited many hundreds of pieces of pottery which were still sitting in various stockrooms around the factory. In a letter to the Brighton Museum in 1972, Clarice said that "this huge stock had always interested me and presented a challenge." She was given permission to set up a small studio and she and fifteen-year-old Gladys Scarlett set about covering the ware with brightly coloured geometric decoration.
Soon five more girls joined them, and Clarice set up a system for outlining, enamelling and banding. The girls were told by Clarice to use the paint thickly and make the brush strokes obvious, the reverse of their usual instructions. Colley was working at the same time on a marketing plan and decided the ware should have a name. Clarice settled on "Bizarre". Next Colley sent Clarice and a couple of the Bizarre girls to London to be photographed demonstrating the hand painting of Bizarre ware in a shop window. In September the true test came. Wilkinson’s salesman, the very sceptical Ewart Oakes, was sent off with a carload of "Bizarre". He sold out before the end of the week. In retrospect it is truly incredible how quickly things moved after that.
Colley was a master of the art of modern advertising. He planned his "Bizarre" campaign with great skill. Newspapers and women’s magazines often featured photographs of Bizarre girls sitting in a shop window painting. The girls would sit dressed in artists’ smocks with big black bows at the neck and berets on their heads demonstrating their work. Colley hired well-known personalities to come to the shows and be seen and photographed buying pieces of Clarice’s "Bizarre". The constant creation of new patterns was a successful method of keeping "Bizarre" in the public eye. In 1931 Clarice and Colley had the idea of installing a radio in the shop so the Bizarre girls could listen to music while they painted. Whether productivity really did go up 25% is irrelevant; once again they achieved a wave of publicity. Photographs of the girls working on Bizarre ware were always good for the order book and Colley and Clarice were brilliant at capturing the public’s attention.
The simple geometric patterns which Clarice designed were easily learned by her semi-skilled fourteen year old girls and she decided to move on to other designs. The Crocus pattern was instantly successful, and remained a best seller for the factory into the 1960s. Early in 1929 demand was so great for "Crocus" that a separate shop was set up underneath the Bizarre shop and at its peak employed twenty girls. Collectors today revere Clarice for patterns like Sunray and Lucerne, but it is patterns like Crocus and Ravel which kept the factory working.
Newport Pottery made such enormous profits in 1929 that Colley Shorter decided to issue a new series of designs under the name "Fantasque". It was classed as part of the Wilkinson production for tax purposes. This was simply bookkeeping; all the ware was still decorated in the Bizarre shop. The first Fantasque range consisted of eight patterns including such popular ones as Umbrellas and Rain, Broth and Fruit.
There were now 25 girls and boys working in the Bizarre shop -- most of them sixteen years old or younger. They were arranged according to their jobs with the front benches occupied by outliners who passed their work on to enamellers. The banders and liners sat at the back and finished the decorating process. The vast stock of old Newport ware was running down and Clarice was busy creating new shapes more in keeping with her designs. The whole of Newport Pottery was soon given over to the production of Bizarre ware. By the start of 1930 the biscuit and glost ovens were manned 24 hours a day. By 1931 the 25 boys and girls had grown to 150. It is impossible to describe all the patterns and shapes which Clarice designed or supervised in the next few years or the speed at which events moved. In an interview at the time Clarice was asked about design ideas and she said some weeks were better than others. That week she had only come up with twelve new designs!
Usually Clarice would assign a particular pattern to one outliner -- from working through the pattern to filling all the orders. When a pattern became too much in demand for one girl to do, others were trained to work alongside. Look closely at several pieces of a pattern like Trees and House and you will begin to see the different styles of the ‘girls’. Part of the charm of Clarice Cliff lies in the minute variations in pattern resulting from different paintresses copying them at different times. Sometimes the girls worked from memory when the pattern book was unavailable -- the results can sometimes be quite varied but always interesting.
The first of the Applique range was designed in April 1930. The range was more expensive to produce since so many colours were used and it sold for about 25% more than Bizarre. It did not sell particularly well and was mostly phased out by 1932. At the start of 1931 Clarice came up with two Fantasque landscapes -- Autumn and Summerhouse. Autumn sold very well for more than a year and then Clarice replaced it with Pastel Autumn and Orange Autumn to create a new market. She was very skilled at alternating colourways in order to rekindle interest in a pattern. Before the end of the year among the patterns she had introduced were Red Roofs, Farmhouse, House and Bridge and Gibraltar.
It is difficult to imagine in today’s climate of committee design, just how quickly Clarice and Colley responded to the need to create new products for a depressed marketplace. Clarice was even more productive in 1932 if this were possible. Floral patterns included Nasturium, Canterbury Bells, Chintz and Hollyrose" Fruit patterns like Apples, Oranges and Lemons and Pastel Melon were introduced. Landscapes were even more prolific--Limberlost, Poplar, Pink Roof Cottage, Moonlight, May Avenue, and Pastel Autumn and Orange Autumn. Only one year later, fashions had changed, people no longer wanted her brilliant colours and Clarice introduced her last true Bizarre landscape Bridgewater.
With the ever-deepening worldwide depression, Clarice could no longer afford to fail and this may have created the climate for the uninspired patterns of the latter half of the 1930s. By 1935, even the name "Bizarre" had been phased out and the pottery was simply marked "Clarice Cliff, Newport Pottery or Wilkinson Ltd., England"(the whole subject of backstamps is enormously complicated and if interested you should consult The Bizarre Affair).
In November 1939 Colley Shorter’s wife died after a lengthy illness. Colley and Clarice married secretly a year later. Neither Colley nor Clarice’s family approved of the relationship and they had few visits from family members. After the war Colley spent time overseas trying to stimulate sales. Late in 1949 he and Clarice went to Canada and the United States, giving interviews and taking orders. Although Crocus was still being produced, most of the other post-war ware -- with the Clarice Cliff signature above Royal Staffordshire Ceramics -- seems to bear no relation to her earlier work and has never been considered collectible. After Colley’s death Clarice sold the factory to Roy Midwinter and lived a reclusive life at Chetwynd until her death in 1972.
Clarice Cliff was unique. She chose to interpret art deco in her medium -- ceramics -- with vivid colours and strong lines unlike any seen before. For a very few brief years she was encouraged to try anything -- no matter how extreme -- and try anything she did. She said in 1930 that "colour seems to radiate happiness and the spirit of modern life" and somehow that is what she created with her pottery -- joy and a sense of limitless possibility. When you look at a piece of Clarice Cliff Pottery you can almost see that room full of young boys and girls listening to the radio, gossiping about the dance to come, and painting as fast they can. Bevis Hillier argued that "the cosy genius...continues to appeal because there are moments when one feels like cosiness rather than angst, profundity or high art." Clarice Cliff was a cosy genius who made people feel brighter in the darkening 1930s. Clearly her work is having the same effect in the 1990s.