CLARICE CLIFF: The Bold and the Bizarre

A group of Clarice Cliff tablewares - photo by Christie's

“Having a little fun at my work does not make me any less of an artist, and people who appreciate truly beautiful and original creations in pottery are not frightened by innocent tomfoolery.”

Clarice Cliff

Clarice Cliff is renowned for her skill in designing both the painted pattern and the shape of her pieces. This is unusual. She favoured bold colours and strong designs – and unusual, sometimes bizarre shapes.

Cliff’s Childhood – Pre 1916

Clarice Cliff – photo by Old Sunken Vessel

Cliff was born in Meir Street, Tunstall, Stoke on Trent. Her father worked at an iron foundry and her mother took in washing. She had 6 brothers and sisters – but she went to a different school from her siblings. Cliff’s aunt worked in a local pottery as a hand painter and Cliff used to visit her after school. And at school, she made papier-mache models. So from her early years, Cliff delved into both painting and modelling.

When Cliff was thirteen, she started to work at a local pottery, adding fine gold gilding to traditional ware. She followed this by learning how to paint freehand at another pottery. She also attended Burslem School of Art, studying art and sculpture at evening classes.

Cliff’s Early Career

Clarice Cliff Dimity Side Plate, 1920-1939, by A.J. Wilkinson Ltd, Royal Staffordshire – photo by Elsie J Vintage | eBay

In 1916, Cliff moved to Burslem and the A.J. Wilkinson factory. She was unusual as most young women in the pottery industry were happy to work at one task which they mastered and in so doing improved their earnings. But Cliff was different, she wanted to learn everything and she quite soon became skilled in modelling, gilding, hand painting, enamelling and banding (This involves putting the radial bands on vases, plates etc.).

It was here that she met Arthur Colley Austin Shorter, joint manager of the company with his brother Guy. He was to have a great influence on her life and career. 17 years older than Cliff, Colley Shorter took a personal interest in her and sent her the Royal College of Art and to Paris to study.

In 1924, Cliff was allowed a second apprenticeship, mainly in modelling. Working with factory designers John Butler and Fred Ridgway, they made conservative, Victorian-style items.


Large Bizarre By Clarice Cliff, Art Deco, Geometric Pattern “Lotus JUG”, Single-Handled, Hand Painted, Newport Pottery England, late 20s-mid 30s – photo by Ruby Lane

In 1927, Cliff was given her own studio in recognition of her range of skills. Here she decorated some old defective glost ware (white) with her own patterns using on-glaze enamel colours. They gave a bright finish but the paintwork does tend to flake after years of use. She designed colourful patterns of triangles which hid the faults – and when the senior salesman took a carload of pots to an important stockist – he was amazed to find they were very popular and they became much in demand.

Her work became known as “Bizarre” ware and the factory stamps were made with her facsimile signature and the words “Handpainted Bizarre by Clarice Cliff, Newport Pottery England”. The earliest Bizarre ware was called “Original Bizarre”.

The Growth of Cliff’s Work and the Bizarre Girls

In 1927, Cliff was also acknowledged as the designer of the shapes she made. In fact, she had been doing this for the previous 3-4 years.

Her designs had abstract and cubist themes, fitting into the art deco styles. One of her most popular designs was her crocus hand painted range in vibrant colours. In fact, this pattern was so popular that she had 20 young women working 5 ½ days a week through most of 1930, just painting her crocus design. They used it for tableware, coffee sets and novelty gift items. They were called the “Bizarre Girls” although there were also 4 young men. The crocus design was painted in many different colours and continued to be produced right up until 1963 (And to order till 1968 from Midwinter who had bought the factory).

Clarice Cliff Bizarre Fantastique jug, hand painted in the pastel Autumn pattern – photo by Easy Live Auction

She also produced a Ravel range, named after the composer, in 1929, which also had a long life, still being in production six years later. And there were many, many other designs – she seemed to have an enormous store of imagination and industry.

Unusually, the factory produced leaflets in colour – suitable for the increasing number of people buying by mail order. They illustrated different styles including the popular “Fantastique” and “Applique” ranges. While the original leaflets have just 2 “Applique” patterns by 1932 there were no less than 14 different applique designs featured – a printed proof of Cliff’s extraordinary genius.

Cliff Becomes the Art Director – and Marries the Boss

Her team grew until there were about 70, mostly women painters working under her. Then in 1930, she became the art director of Newport Pottery and A.J.Wilkinson, to adjoining factories where she produced her work. This necessitated working closely with Colley Shorter and they started a secret affair.

In 1940, Ann Shorter, Colley’s wife, died and Cliff and Colley got married. They lived in Chetwynd House Northwood lane Stafford.

WW2 and After

Clarice Cliff Lotus Vase, 1940 – photo by Webb’s

During WW2, potteries were required to produce plain white utility ware, so she diverted her creative talents to the garden, a passion shared with her husband.

After the war, tastes changed and the elaborate designs were no longer in favour. A more conservative style was wanted. A great deal of the factory output ended up in Australia, New Zealand and North America. However, her work continued to be sold until 1964. Then, Colley died in 1963 and Cliff retired to a somewhat reclusive lifestyle, having sold the factory to Midwinter.

She died in 1972, just a few months after her work had been exhibited in Brighton.

Collectors and Prices

Cliff’s work was popular and much in demand during the 1920s and then interest declined. But the Brighton exhibition started a revival in interest. Then was another exhibition held at the London gallery L’Odeon in 1976 and this really was the start of renewed interest in Cliff’s work.

Recently discovered May Avenue pattern charger sold at £20,500 at the Clarice Cliff Collectors’ Club sale held by Fieldings – photo by Antiques Trade Gazette

Enthusiasm for her work lead to a television documentary about the Bizarre Girls, books were written and the Clarice Cliff Collectors Club (CCCC) was formed in 1982.

The interest peaked in the 1980s and 1990s. The highest bid for her work was for a rare charger sold by Christie’s. This had May Avenue pattern and fetched £34,000 (61,759 AUD) in 2003. Another May Avenue charger realised £20,500 (46,319 AUD ) at the Fieldings Clarice Cliff Collectors’ Club auction in May 2009. The May Avenue design is bold, semi-abstract – all that collectors look for in a Cliff work of art. Rare combinations of paint and shape can still command high prices at auction.

But prices have fallen since then, you might be able to find examples of her famous crocus design for as little as £20 (36 AUD). But the condition of the item is always a factor to consider, especially as her overglaze decoration does tend to flake. The Clarice Cliff Collectors Club collaborate with Fieldings of Stourbridge to sell her wares. You can find many good pieces for under £500 (908 AUD). It is worth having a look at their web site.

Clarice Cliff Marks

Printed backstamp from 1928, then used on ‘Bizarre’ ware in various styles until early 1936 – photo by | Wikipedia

Clarice Cliff marks are confusing, especially as many pieces have incomplete marks, or even non-existent marks, which can put collectors off.

From 1928-1936 both printed and back stamps were used. There are many variations. The printed marks were put into tissue paper which was then applied to the piece. You may find the odd corner missing or edge when they were cut from a sheet. The stamps are more likely to be smudged, irregular or with parts missing as they were applied at speed, on the glaze.

But in the 1930s, some items did not get any stamp at all!

You will find marks for Bizarre, marks for Fantastique, Delicia and Moderne and the other ranges. There were variations within the ranges and also the pottery where they were produced – Newport Pottery or Wilkinsons pottery.

In 1934, a simpler style of the mark was introduced, and by 1936 they were phasing out the Bizarre name.

Final Thoughts

One of Clarice Cliff’s ‘Age of Jazz’ figures (model no 434), that sold for £15,000 at Woolley & Wallis in March 2018 – photo by Antiques Trade Gazette

Although the prices have fallen, a rare Age of Jazz figure group from the 1930s was auctioned for £15,000 (27,247 AUD) in 2018 – so the market is still variable – and if you like bold patterns and exotic shapes, then Cliff ware must be highly desirable. Just be aware that there are fakes also on the market, so you will need to check the marks carefully. If in doubt and authenticity is important to you – get an expert to decipher the marks and judge the originality of the piece for you. But her bold designs, in shape and pattern, make for interesting collections.

Her own words sum up her pottery style:

“Having a little fun at my work does not make me any less of an artist, and people who appreciate truly beautiful and original creations in pottery are not frightened by innocent tomfoolery.”