No one could have predicted Clarice Cliff’s rise to become Art Director of Newport Pottery. Her fellow-workers recall that while Clarice was friendly, rather than socializing she preferred wandering around the factory learning about the various processes by asking and looking. Each job required particular skills.
Plates and saucers were pressed from solid clay by flatpressers. Teapots and other vessels were made by pouring slip into moulds; once dry the piece was carefully removed and sent for firing. Most of the workers had no interest in the coal-fired bottle-ovens, but Clarice would watch as the heavy saggars full of pots were piled thirty feet high by labourers using ladders. One saggar would hold anything from twenty-four to forty-two teapots.
Clarice Cliff even went to the clay end (the worst part of the factory in which to work) and befriended a young boy called Reg Lamb, who secretively purloined expensive modelling clays for her. As her confidence grew, she persuaded the oven firemen and placers to fire her pieces. When her fellow-workers had lunch outdoors, Clarice stayed at her bench modelling figures.
Her independence led to her being noticed by the works manager, who reported to Colley Shorter that she showed promise. By 1922 she was given an apprenticeship as a modeller and assigned to work with two elderly designers at Wilkinson’s, John Butler and Fred Ridgway. As well as modelling, Clarice was entrusted with decorating their prestigious art pottery. These pieces were designed for exhibitions, to attract buyers to the company’s stand and encourage sales of the more everyday fancies and tableware. Her new role was significant, as she had escaped from the artistic strait-jacket of being just a paintress, and now had the chance to make her own mark.
Working in the design studio gave Clarice Cliff the time and facilities to pursue her true love of modelling. By 1926 several of her rather naïve figurines were added to the factory’s range, including a cartoon-style duckling, who preceded Donald Duck by several years. This was later adapted to become the handle of an egg-cup set. A more graceful figurine of a girl holding aloft a candle sconce, modelled as a flower posy, was produced for over ten years. However, as much as Clarice Cliff aspired to be a modeller, fate intervened and provided her true vocation.
Wilkinson’s had bought the Newport Pottery that adjoined its factory in 1920, inheriting another 300 workers and a large warehouse full of traditionally shaped ware. The pieces were of poor quality and unsaleable, but in 1927 Clarice had the idea of covering them in bold colours to hide their defects.
Surprisingly, Colley mellowed quickly to the enthusiasm of his first female designer and she was given her own studio at Newport. With the help of a young paintress, Gladys Scarlett, Clarice now developed her own ideas. She found that simple designs of triangles could be executed speedily, and with banding added to cover the rest of the body, faults were well hidden.