For something self-titled “bizarre”, the vibrant art deco ceramics of Clarice Cliff have proved remarkably popular. “Her bold, colourful work captured the fashionable spirit of the age but delivered it to the mass market,” says Alun Graves, senior curator of ceramics at the V&A, which has a number of her pieces. “People love its exuberance.” But Cliff’s designs also chime with current interiors trends towards bigger, bolder patterns and prints.
Cliff was born in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1899, and began working in the pottery industry aged 13, later studying at the Burslem School of Art at night. Talented and ambitious, she took a job at the AJ Wilkinson factory in 1916, and by 1927 had her own studio at the adjoining Newport Pottery, where she started creating freehand patterns in a style she called “Bizarre”. The designs – over 400 shapes and more than 500 handpainted patterns between 1927 and 1936 – were a surprising commercial success and Cliff was made art director in 1930.
“Cliff created a couple of ranges, Crocus and Gayday, that were extremely popular at the time,” says Michael Jeffery, associate director of auction house Woolley & Wallis, whose next dedicated Clarice Cliff sale is on March 29. “These designs kept the company afloat and enabled her to develop more exotic patterns using cutting-edge geometric lines.” So while today Crocusware commands prices in the hundreds, it is the more experimental pieces that are prized by collectors. “The May Avenue pattern has always been the most sought-after,” says dealer Andrew Muir, who has a curvy Isis-shaped jug in the tree-lined-road design for £9,000. “The pattern holds the auction record for a piece by Cliff – an 18in wall charger [underplate], which sold for £39,500 at Christie’s in May 2003.”
This record more than doubled the previous high of £18,000 for a Windmill-pattern charger in 2001 at Phillips, and still represents something of a one-off spike, with prices for single pieces today rarely exceeding £20,000. “The internet has brought to light that some of the more modest designs are widely available,” says collector Matthew Shaw, an accountant from northeast London, “and this has led to a rebalancing of prices. The best pieces continue to do very well and something that was priced at, say, £2,000 in the 1990s could have doubled in value, whereas at the other end of the scale values have gone down and something that was worth £1,000 might now only fetch £400.”
Growing up in Stoke-on-Trent, Shaw was introduced to Cliff’s ceramics at an early age, and a meiping Inspiration Caprice vase owned by his grandmother is now in The Potteries Museum. “I have between 100 and 200 pieces on which I’ve spent from £35 to £15,000,” says Shaw, who sources Cliff’s Bizarreware from specialist dealers Banana Dance and Andrew Muir – “now the biggest dealer in the field”, who, with Will Farmer, director of Fieldings Auctioneers, runs the Clarice Cliff Collectors Club – as well as on eBay and at auctions across the world. “But certain patterns just don’t come up, such as Orange Battle and Black Luxor, which I’d love to get my hands on.”
Other patterns that excite collectors but are hard to come by include Appliqué. “The designs are scenic and interesting, and the paint is very thick,” says Jonathan Daltrey, co-owner of Banana Dance, who recently sold an Appliqué Palermo wall plate for £4,000, while the only known example of an Appliqué Monsoon plate went for £10,000 last year. Meanwhile, Muir has a large Appliqué Lucerne vase, depicting orange-roofed houses against a vibrant, painterly blue sky, for £5,500.
Equally striking are the Fantasque range – with patterns such as Honolulu with its twisting orange and pistachio-green trees, which features on a 26.5cm wall plaque (£1,200) and a conical teacup and saucer (£475) being offered by Muir – and Inspiration. The latter uses “a completely different colour range to her other work,” says Jeffery, who this year sold a rare Inspiration Caprice charger, in blue, black, ochre and purple on a turquoise background, for £3,000 over an estimate of £1,200 to £1,800. “People tend to collect just Inspiration, with its 20 or so patterns.”
One such collector is perfumer Roja Dove, who began buying Cliff’s ceramics in 1974, building a collection that he later sold. He now has a small selection of Cliff’s Inspirationware. “She was a great experimentalist but, in my view, much of her early work is strange because she was using existing shapes; so you have great-great aunt Maud’s Victorian teapot with an utterly modern design on it. The best pieces have a geometric design on a geometric shape.”
In a deco twist, Cliff’s teacups became coolly conical with filled-in triangular handles, teapots were bold and angular – even the simple conical sugar shakers made a striking statement. Muir has several sugar sifters, including one (£950) in the zingy Red Tulip pattern, while Daltrey has an Orange Alpine tea set (£8,500) combining conical cups and rectangular Biarritz saucers. “The meiping vases work really well for landscapes and geometrics,” adds Daltrey; Allan Bellamy, owner of art deco and midcentury showroom Gazelles of Lyndhurst in west London, currently has a rare example in a Geometric Garden pattern, priced at £12,000.
And while they might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the iconic Age of Jazz figures, designed in 1930, command high prices; Daltrey currently has a full set of five worth around £75,000. But he for one has no plans to part with it any time soon.