Clarice Cliff Part 1

The Life of Clarice Cliff Part 1

Clarice CliffWhen Clarice Cliff became the Art Director of Newport Pottery in 1930, she was the first woman to reach such a high echelon in the Potteries.

She was, in effect, what we would nowadays call a ‘career woman. Still, when Colley Shorter, the factory’s Victorian owner, entrusted her with the title of Art Director, society was dominated by men who could never have envisaged Clarice’s rise to fame.

We can chronicle her phenomenal achievements, but it is still hard to appreciate them fully. Clarice Cliff emerged as a significant force in ceramic design between the Great Strike of 1926 and the Depression that began in 1930.

Her most successful years mirror the severe financial Depression that affected the whole world.

Clarice Cliff’s prolific output of shapes and patterns has never since been equalled. With little formal artistic training but a unique understanding of how to use colour and form, she emerged as Art Director of the factory group that pioneered the modern design in ceramics in the Thirties.

Clarice took both the design and the marketing of pottery to new heights.

Nothing in her childhood hinted at the distinguished career that was to follow. Like most people from this industrial part of Staffordshire, Clarice Cliff began life in a small two-up, two-down terraced house in Tunstall with her parents and six brothers and sisters. The family was not poor but had a plain lifestyle.

Clarice seems to have been closer to her four sisters than to her two brothers. Her younger sister, Dorothy, was far more outgoing than Clarice. Known as Dolly, she loved dancing and shared a passion for dress-making with her sisters Hannah, Sarah, and Ethel.

Neighbours acknowledged all the Cliff girls as being ‘smart’, but this related more to their ability to design their dresses than their income.

Clarice Cliff had a simple schooling and spent much of each weekend with her sisters and friends at the services and Sunday School at Christchurch, in Tunstall. In the summer and at Easter, they visited the local countryside, where the children ran wild.

A couple of times a year, a dance in the church hall would cause great excitement, except for Clarice, who made it clear that she would far sooner be doing something constructive.

As with virtually every working-class child then, Clarice had to leave school at thirteen and had little option but to work at a local pot bank.

Like all apprentices, she initially learned gilding and banding ware, but something made her look beyond working to earn a living. She switched jobs twice and, in 1916, arrived for her first day at A. J. Wilkinson’s works at Newport in Burslem.

It meant a long journey to work by tram and then walking, but it was critical to her improvement.

A. J. Wilkinson’s was a successful pot bank owned by the Shorter family since 1894.

A sprawling dark mass of bottle ovens, kilns, and production shops, it ran alongside the Trent-Mersey canal, which delivered the raw ingredients for the earthenware and the coal to fire it.

Nearly 400 workers were employed, and every stage of production was manual. They negotiated steep wooden stairs or piles of coal while carrying long boards covered in ware on their shoulders. They certainly never dropped the boards—it would have cost them their jobs.

In the distance, they could see fields around the factory, but nearby, these were scarred by a vast white shard ruck: broken pieces of ware spreading over many acres.

Colley Shorter and his brother Guy ran Wilkinson’s. Colley was a wealthy, Victorian, upper-class man with a taste for fine furnishings and antiques that complemented his Arts and Crafts home.

When she joined, he would have no idea who Clarice Cliff was. Indeed, it would have been unlikely that he would ever have had occasion to address her.