An Interview with Gladys Scarlett by Len Griffin from the Clarice Cliff Collector’s Club Review Autumn 1983.
The Bizarre People – the Tale of Gladys Scarlett
I was very much looking forward to meeting Gladys Scarlett as I drove through a wind and rainstorm to her remote house, perched high on the North Staffordshire moors. I knew from my telephone conversation with her, that she had been employed at Wilkinson’s several years before Bizarre Ware was launched, and felt sure she would be able to cast new light as to how it came about. Her moorland home looked like something out of Wuthering Heights as I slowly steered my car up the drive through the rainstorm, and when she eventually came to the door, she received me with no more warmth than the wind had to offer.
I then carried my things in from the car and was ushered into a small cosy back lounge that would have been more inviting had Gladys switched the light on. As it was, my interview with her was conducted in the half-light, and, in the manner of Emily Brontes novel, was it seemed, a mixture of fiction and fact. Eight months later I still find it hard to decide what proportion of what she told me was fact, but in fairness to her I shall tell her story, mainly in her own words, and leave you to draw your own conclusions.
“I was born in Smallthorne, Stoke on Trent and went to Smallthorne School, where I can remember being interested in painting from the age of eight onwards. I passed a pottery painting exam when I was fourteen, and left school to go straight to work at Wilkinson’s, where I was interviewed for the job by Mr. Jack Walker, brother-in-law of Colley Shorter. I was set to work with Dolly Cliff who was slightly younger than Clarice and we were put on (producing) trials for new designs. They were nothing like the Bizarre ware that was to follow.
When I was fifteen I was moved across to Newport to work with Clarice (1926). Mr. Coley Shorter took me across to the Newport showroom, where she had a little office in the corner where she worked. Clarice was modelling, and I was painting designs and which ever Mr. Colley thought good enough were passed to the travellers (Salesmen). However, Clarice wasn’t there for much of the time as he (Colley Shorter) sent her to Kensington Art School, and paid for a flat for her in London. He also wanted to send me, but she wouldn’t hear of it, so I would keep doing trial designs whilst she periodically came back. When she was away, I designed and stayed in the office getting it all together. I designed patterns such as pyramids (geometric), they just came out of my head. It was my idea to put all the colours on the plates, and Clarice was there and she would say, “Yes, that will be okay, that will do”.
Then the travellers tried them out and they went like a bomb… and all of a sudden we found we were so busy. We got so busy that Mr. Colley started to take them from all departments. He took Nellie Harrison first, and the Florrie Winkle. Then Mary Brown, Annie Berresford, Clara Thomas, Nancy Liversage and Phyllis Tharme from different departments, and from the Burslem School of Art, John Shaw, Harold Walker, Fred Salmon, Tom Stringer, Helen Brown, Doris Beech and Nellie Webb. They were brought in when it was beyond me to keep them going.”
In August 1928 Gladys went to London with Clarice, Nellie and Florrie to spend a week demonstrating hand painting at Waring and Gillow, and the historic picture below, from Gladys’s collection is of that demonstration.
"It was a warm day in August 1928 when we travelled down on a Yellow Way coach to London. We stayed at the Russell Square Ladies Club, and Clarice stayed at her London flat. Our stand was part of the ‘Home Making’ exhibition at Waring and Gillows, and we were in the foyer. I designed all those pieces in the photograph. She (Clarice) just came in half-way through, she knew when the photographer was arriving, and Colley Shorter said, “Sit down Clarice”, and when the photographer had finished he said “Come on Clarice”, and they were gone!.
"Eventually we had seventy girls, all sitting in rows, and shelves on the side, all waiting to take the ware. We only signed ‘Bizarre’ on the back for a few months, and then the stamp mark appeared to speed things up. Colley Shorter use to come in the morning and say “Top of the morning girl”, and he’d call me his ‘little girl in pink’. Of course she (Clarice) didn’t come in early, but when she did I didn’t take any notice of her… I never socialized with her outside of work, she wasn’t my type… all of her family stayed at home except Clarice, but she stepped above herself, and went into a different world.”
Talking about the development of the designs.
“We started to develop the designs, one such as Broth followed on from the geometric, and eventually landscapes. Clarice started the usually shaped vases and teapots right from the beginning of the showroom. She’d be on the wheel, modelling, and I’d be painting. I think she was taught at Kensington how to model. Newport was on the rocks when we started, there was talk of it having to go over to Wilkinson’s and be sold up, but Bizarre saved it.”
Gladys recalled how she eventually became discontent.
“I objected when I was twenty (1931) to the wage I was being paid, I thought I was worth more and so asked for more. Clarice said I couldn’t have any more. I said I was going to leave and Mr. Colley asked me half a dozen times to stay, but one day when they were sitting having their lunch in the showroom, I threw my notice onto his lap. I left just before I was twenty-one, and my mother took my samples and got me a job at twice my previous wage at Steventon’s of Burslem, where I worked as a paintress with a modeller, Mr. Frank Phillips. When they changed to producing tiles I moved to Maddocks to supervise the production of an order for Cunard, where I had thirty girls painting and gilding.”
Gladys never meet Clarice again after she left. That’s the end of her story, told mainly in her own words, but obviously I was keen to find out more, and so asked some questions that I thought might help clarify exactly what happened in those days before Bizarre was launched.
Q. Were you annoyed that Clarice was taking the credit for your geometric designs?
A. "Well I was too young then to realise, at fifteen you don’t realise these things do you ?”
Q. Did you ever design any scenes with cottages?
A. “After the Bizarre started, I continued to design, and Clarice modelled, and I used to do designs with cottages, and paths going up to them”.
However, when I showed Gladys a selection of photos of early landscapes, she said that none of them were hers. I showed Gladys some of the more advanced geometric patterns such as ‘Deco Lightening’ and asked:
Q. Did you design any of these?
A. “I didn’t do any of those, I don’t like them because they don’t begin or end anywhere.”
It’s also the case that her story could have been told previously as she was interviewed by Peter Wentworth-Shields and Kay Johnson for their book, but strangely they chose to ignore what she told them, even though she was credited in the acknowledgements, under her married name of Broad. It’s obvious that she was instrumental in evolving the early geometric designs, and perhaps the idea of the cottage scenes. But form her comments above, she was presumably not involved with designing the really stylish ‘Fantasque’ range, but we are still left wondering it someone other than Clarice Cliff was ?.