The Life of Clarice Cliff Part 3
In spring 1927 Clarice Cliff left Gladys producing these trial pieces while she was sent to the prestigious Royal College of Art, in London’s Kensington. Her fees were paid by Colley, who saw this as a way of refining her innate ability. However, it was not the time she spent modelling clay under the guidance of sculptor Gilbert Ledward that was to advance her talent, but her forays into London’s galleries and shops. Here she encountered for the first time a mass of paintings, silver and glass that opened her mind to a whole new direction for ceramic design.
While any of the major Stoke-on-Trent Potteries could have used this new Jazz Age style, their designers preferred to cling to conservative shapes and designs. Stoke had not initially responded to the outpouring of creative artistic ideas focused at the 1923 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels in Paris. The Art Deco exhibition (as it was eventually named) was to influence all Thirties’ design in Britain, from furniture to cinemas, from carpets to fashion. It was Clarice Cliff, however, who first took its principles and instilled them into ceramics.
Clarice returned to Stoke-on-Trent a changed woman. The impetus of her visit led to long discussions with Colley in her studio, generally conducted over afternoon tea and behind closed doors. They may have done this to keep her ideas secret from other potteries (copying designs was a standard occurrence at the time) or, as factory staff observed, perhaps they wanted some privacy. In later years she talked of a brief visit to Paris at this time. It is inconceivable that she could have arranged or afforded this herself, and it later transpired that she had probably gone with Colley Shorter, which is why it was kept secret. This trip was clearly the catalyst for both her artistic and her personal growth.
Early in 1928 Clarice recruited more young hand-paintresses to execute designs on the old unsaleable stock, and when she chose the name Bizarre for this range she unknowingly started on a career that was to change ceramic history.
The initial Bizarre designs were crude triangles drawn in brown or green, which were then enamelled in two or three colours. The ware had great impact because of its sheer simplicity – there was nothing like it being offered for sale by pottery retailers. The factory salesmen were sceptical about its appeal but knew it was wise to react positively to Shorter’s enthusiasm for t he ideas of the woman already perceived as his protégée. The most experienced salesman, Ewart Oakes, took a car-load to an Oxford dealer. To his surprise she bought it all, and suddenly the Bizarre ball was rolling. Clarice’s hunch had been right!
Clarice Cliff wanted to enlarge the Bizarre range and found Colley agreeable to providing source material for her, so she compiled a library of books on flowers, contemporary painting, and sets of prints. The ideas she culled from these, mixed with her unusual taste for colour, swiftly accelerated the development of Bizarre, and the name was then used for all her designs.
Clarice’s first floral pattern was to be her most successful. She experimented with painting Crocus flowers and found that the brush strokes exactly resembled the petals, while a few green lines for the leaves completed the effect. The pattern was immediately so successful that Ethel Barrow, the first paintress to produce it, had to teach whole teams of girls how to execute it. The design’s popularity endured throughout Clarice’s career.
Many of Clarice Cliff’s girls were to find that life as a Bizarre paintress was more enjoyable than they had anticipated. Late in 1928 Clarice and Colley organized a demonstration of hand-painting in the foyer of the Waring & Gillow store in London. This type of promotion was unusual for the time, as most companies limited their activities to static displays.
Colley Shorter had allowed John Butler and Fred Ridgway to be credited on wares earlier in the Twenties, but in Clarice Cliff he recognized a fresh concept in marketing. Linking a woman’s name to pottery aimed primarily at women opened up new promotional horizons. Clarice’s artistic naïveté and charismatic personality magnetically captured the attention of the public and the press.
The Waring & Gillow demonstration was probably the first and last time that Clarice did hand-painting in public herself. She sat with three of her paintresses for the press pictures, but as soon as they were taken she left with Colley. He realized that her value lay in being a figurehead and it did not really matter who was painting the ware, as long as the public could see it being done. Naturally, the young paintresses were more interested in Clarice and Colley going off together than in their demonstration. When they returned to the Potteries all the other girls in the Bizarre shop heard about it.
Soon there were twenty paintresses doing Clarice’s designs, and a special painting shop was set up on the top floor of an old three-storey building overlooking the canal. Wooden benches were installed, where the girls worked for five and a half days a week for a wage of just six shillings. Shelves by the girls’ benches held boards full of decorated ware, which was carried across the site to the enamel kiln for final firing. Workers referred to Clarice’s decorating shop as the Bizarre shop, and the paintresses who were briefly the Bizarre ‘babes’ became known as the Bizarre ‘girls’, a name they still use more than sixty years later. Too busy to train and supervise them herself now, Clarice Cliff employed Lily Slater as the ‘missus’ for her growing team.
All Bizarre ware was hand-painted using enamels mixed from powder colour, turps and fat-oil. The younger apprentices ground the paints for the more experienced decorators.
These were then applied on-glaze, which enabled a larger range of brighter colours to be used than the under-glaze process. As they learned the skills of hand-painting, the decorators specialized in one particular part of the process. The outliners drew the silhouette of the design in one colour, then enamellers added the individual colours between these. Finally, a bander & liner added colourful bands around the ware by placing it on a rotating potter’s wheel and skilfully applying the brush. Banding colours varied between patterns and were a distinctive frame that gave Bizarre an individual style.
During 1929 Clarice Cliff’s simple triangles evolved into motifs such as Sunray and Umbrellas & Rain, which captured the Art Deco spirit. Some of these appeared under a separate range name, Fantasque, which was developed into a major part of Clarice’s output. The most outrageous new line was Delecia, ware drenched in dripping enamels that ran all over it like a colourful storm. Elsie Nixon, the first paintress to do this, usually ended up covered in more paint than the pottery! Elsie also assisted in developing the Bizarre advertising photographs that Clarice Cliff took in her own studio. Ironically, most of the publicity for Clarice’s colourful wares was limited to black and white reproduction.
Clarice’s new patterns looked incongruous on the traditional shapes, so she complemented them with her first major range of shapes, inspired by and named after Conical forms. A series of bowls with triangular feet were produced after she insisted to the sceptical staff that they were technically feasible. By September she had issued the stylish Conical teaware range. The teapot had a solid triangular handle, as did the cups. Triangular feet were also used for the milk jug and sugar basin. Technically these pieces were of high quality, and were covered in a more refined glaze than usual. The factory called this honeyglaze, and it provided a warm background for Clarice Cliff’s colour combinations and designs.