Lemon Sherbet and Dolly Blue, family history, adoption memoir, women's literature writing, Clarice Cliff

Clarice Cliff 'Prologue'

Photograph of Clarice Cliff examining the pattern on an ‘Inspiration’ vase The Brilliant Young Girl Artist

‘Come to Lawley's and Meet Miss Clarice Cliff,' the Daily ­Mail announced in June 1930. ‘To enable our many friends to see this female pottery artist,’ the advertisement continued, ‘we have arranged a special Pottery Painting Demonstration.’

A grainy black and white photograph shows Clarice Cliff examining the pattern on an ‘Inspiration’ vase. She is dressed in a white technician’s coat, with a dark skull cap pulled low on to her forehead. This was the ‘brilliant young girl artist’ who had come to the attention of the press two years earlier with a design of tableware whose patterns and colouring were as startling as their name. Each piece of ‘Bizarre’ was stamped with Clarice Cliff’s signature and found immediate favour with women who responded to the modern spirit of her work. Clarice Cliff’s work was different, at a time when women hoped their lives would be different too. Early sales of ‘Bizarre’ coincided with the achievement of universal female suffrage; Clarice Cliff spoke to the possibilities of that moment. ‘Colour combined with novel decorative designs made an instant appeal to the middle-class housewife,’ the Daily Sketch reported; Woman’s Life was all the more insistent: ‘Women simply clamoured for this new pottery.’

Now, the London branch of Lawley’s department store in Regent Street was opening its doors to a demonstration of the tableware responsible for Clarice Cliff’s success. From Monday to Saturday, ten-thirty am to five-thirty pm, members of the public watched Clarice Cliff and her young paintresses demonstrate the various stages of hand-decoration: saw enamel wisps of smoke rise from cottage chimneys, watched everlasting flowers bloom in tangerine and coral paint. Though not the first of Clarice Cliff's public demon­strations, the week at Lawley’s was significant. By now, her name was sufficiently well known that an invitation to meet her drew the public, while the central location of the London store attracted the national press. Noting that the event was ‘visited by a number of connoisseurs’, the Daily Telegraph observed that ‘its results certainly go far in ... enlivening the aspect of the modern table,’ but it was the Daily Mirror’s more emotional response which captured a major element of Clarice Cliff’s press appeal when she was introduced as ‘one of the romances of the pottery trade’. Here was a woman who ‘only a few years ago’ had been ‘a humble little gilder in a china factory’. Now ­she was a newsworthy designer. ‘No movie star can tell a more romantic story of "How I Was Discovered".’ ­

Clarice Cliff Poetry Clarice Cliff's beginnings were shared by thousands of girls and women of the early 1900s. She was just another factory girl, with a rolled-up pinny in her coat pocket and nothing much expected of her future, but the developm­ent of her narrative runs counter to theirs, confounding and disputing expectations. Within the stronghold of traditionalism and class that was the Staffordshire Potteries, her success was without precedent. Although other women emerged as designers during this period - most notably Susie Cooper - it was a working-class woman whose story captivated the press.

Clarice Cliff's pottery struck the latest note during a period in which domestic design was becoming a matter of fashion, as well as a significant force in debates about the role of the industrial designer. The vibrancy of her patterns and audacity of her shapes enabled her to capture and project modernity; commercial courage allowed her to influence and interpret new trends. The 'exceptional versatility' for which Clarice Cliff was praised led to her becoming an enormously prolific designer: some 270-plus 'Bizarre' patterns alone and hundreds of shapes are attributed to her name. The Newport Pottery was recalled as producing 18,000 pieces of 'Bizarre' a week at the height of her success, with a weekly turnover of £2,000 - almost double that of the average pottery. Approximately 8.5 million pieces overall were sold. Today, Clarice Cliff's work regularly commands thousands of pounds at auction. Even those with no especial knowledge of, or interest in design can recognise a piece of 'Clarice Cliff'; for many, she epitomises Art Deco. (For some, she represents everything dislikeable about the style.)

Although Clarice Cliff's professional life was widely documented, she did not leave behind - and, most likely, did not write - the letters and journals that generally furnish the private lives of public individuals. Factory hours afforded little time for leisure, and working-class women were, in any case, not encouraged to write about themselves: their lives were hardly thought worthy of record. Clarice Cliff's silence is doubly insistent: by the time she had stories of her own, she had reason to withhold them. By the late 1920s, she was familiar with the snatched meetings and discreet hotels that characterise a relationship with a married lover.

Bizarre range of pottery by Clarice Cliff Clarice Cliff's story belongs not to London or Paris - although both cities figure within it - but to industrial Stoke-on-Trent, a harsh creative backdrop, with far less scope for the unconventional. An environmen­t of strong local flavours, its stamps its power upon the personalities it creates. Though the writer Vera Brittain knew Staffordshire only as a very young girl, she described herself as 'Staffordshire to the core'. Clarice Cliff spent her life in the Potteries. Its social and cultural history is stitched into the fabric of her existence.

Although she worked within a community, Clarice Cliff was neither part of the establishment nor an adherent of provincial codes, yet despite her apparent bravado, she was an intensely private woman. Hers was a life of contradictions in a period rife with contradictions of its own. The inter-war years ushered in the modern; the advent of the wireless and talking films revolutionised communication and changed the cultural fabric; mass production and labour-saving devices overhauled domestic and industrial life. Art, literature and design thrilled with the new, old forms were overthorwn and risks embraced, but this was only part of the picture. Those years were also characterised by economic uncertainty, the Depression and social flux - by retrenchment as well as possibility. For most women of the period, the 1920s and '30s were years of restricted employment opportunities and rigid social and sexual mores. The penalties for those who transgressed were great; in small provincial towns, like those comprising the Potteries, the risks were even greater.

Good design does not draw attention to itself, and nor should women, so say tenets of the period (and thereafter). Yet Clarice Cliff's exclamatory designs could take away the breath. Though her vocabulary was domestic tableware, she was nevertheless a radical, a mo­dernist in spirit, if not in the capitalised letters of design terminology. Like many modernists, she was an outsider, reconfiguring the landscape, extending and reshaping the boundaries of professional life for women. There were too few women like her for Clarice Cliff to fit comfortably within her milieu. Most women leave to break the rules; Clarice Cliff stayed and broke them. Who was the woman in the black skull cap, to whom 'romance' so readily attached itself? Who was the 'brilliant young girl artist', Clarice Cliff?

Copyright (c) Lynn Knight 2005




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