She started work as just another factory girl, but by 1928, had launched her own range of pottery,'Bizarre'. A'gargantuan feast of colour', it blazed a trail through the homes of inter-war Britain. Independent, ambitious, non-standard and outrageous, were all terms used to describe Clarice Cliff and her work as she blazed a trail that challenged and redefined the pottery industry. Born in 1899, she was one of seven children.Her father, Harry Thomas Cliff, was an ironworker and her mother, Ann, took in washing to supplement the family income. Clarice, who had attended a different school than her brothers and sisters - leading some to believe this is what instilled her independence from an early age - began life in the pottery industry aged 13. It was the start of a journey that would lead to worldwide recognition as Clarice found her first job as a gilder. It was her task to apply gold lines to the already laid designs on pottery ware. However, the early signs of Clarice's ambitious thirst for knowledge and learning began to emerge.
After a short time learning and mastering the gilding process, she gained a position as a free-hand painter. In 1916, perhaps feeling she had learned all she could in her current roles, Clarice made the decision to move to the factory of A. Despite the much longer journey from where she lived in Tunstall, Clarice saw an opportunity to advance her career. It was seen by many as an unusual step to take, certainly for a woman at that time in the pottery industry who in 1916 usually learned one task and remained in that position, increasing their income for their family's benefit.
Moving factories, she had her eye fixed on learning modelling figurines and vases, gilding, keeping pattern books and hand painting ware, as well as outlining and enamelling. While the expectation of most women working in the industry at that time was an apprentice wage throughout their working life, Clarice had no qualms about pushing the boundaries set in place. Showing a deft eye for creative design and quality workmanship, she came to the attention of the factory manager, who in turn made her known to Colley Shorter, who ran the factory with his brother Guy. It was this meeting that would aid Clarice's rise through the industry and catapult her name around the world.In 1924, having completed her first apprenticeship, she was granted a second. Now 25, Clarice's role was firstly as a modeller. While she managed this with some ease, she also worked with well-known and long-standing factory designers John Butler and Fred Ridgway.
Clarice began to not only learn from her mentors, but also see a need for her own creations. The current designs being produced by Butler and Ridgeway were traditional and conservative for the time, but her designs were not.
A little over a decade since she first joined A. Wilkinson, Clarice found herself in charge of her own design studio in 1927. Her creations had gained wide attention, especially from Colley Shorter. Initially given old defective white ware known as glost, she set about experimenting with her own free-hand painted designs using an on-glaze enamel, which given Clarice's modern approach, brought brighter colors to her work.
Because of the'defective' nature of the glost ware, Clarice developed a pattern of triangles which she overlaid on any imperfections. In spite of its practical origins, the triangular design which she called Bizarre would catapult her into the mainstream of the ceramics and art industries.
The early output of these modern designs were adorned by her own hand-painted mark -'Bizarre by Clarice Cliff'. The first indications of the popularity of the Bizarre range were realised by a salesman of the firm when travelling to a stockist, who immediately placed a large order. To help her with the workload, Clarice was joined by young painter Gladys Scarlett.Emblazoned with a much more professional looking stamp, every piece of Bizarre ware which went through the factory door read: Hand painted Bizarre by Clarice Cliff, Newport Pottery England. With Clarice increasing her range of designs and patterns, the Bizarre name was given as an overarching name to all her work. This caused some confusion and led to original, more simplistic triangle patterned pieces having to be referred to as'Original Bizarre'. During her rise to the top of the pottery industry, Clarice attended the Royal School of Art in London on two separate occasions during 1927, then spending time in Paris. It was during this time that she created some of her memorable pieces, such as Viking Boat flower holder. The following year Clarice launched her now famous Crocus Flowers pattern. Hand painted, she used different techniques, once again, and as each flower was painstakingly constructed using confident upward strokes. Never one for resting on her laurels, by 1929 Clarice had re-invented her approach to ceramic design again. Focusing this time on creating geometric based patterns, Clarice showed herself to be ahead of her male peers, creating designs that would later be referred to as Art Deco.
By 1930, Clarice's vibrant modern works had generated huge sales interest and put her at the top of the pile with the biggest names of the industry, past and present. It was during this new decade that her operations had to expand or die. Having originally operated with one young decorator, Clarice now found herself inundated with demands for her work. The solution was to set up a new decorating shop underneath the top floor of the building which held her Bizarre collection shop. Taking on only women, Clarice entrusted the task of training 20 of them to Ethel Barrow, who had until then been her sole young decorator.
Such was the demand for the crocus pattern ware that once trained, those new recruits spent over five days every week throughout 1930 painting nothing but crocus pattens. Clarice eventually had 70 young painters - called her'Bizarre girls' - working for her, and all but four were women. Her determination and level of quality and skill was such that she oversaw the daily production carried out by her team, directing them as they worked. Going on to create abstract designs such as her Fantasque collection, by 1934 Clarice found herself four years into the position of art director of Newport pottery. Through the remaining 30s, Clarice produced many more memorable and popular designs that incurred huge demand.It was the desire for her work that sustained the business through the long depression toward the end of the decade, as the ongoing demand for what were still called'outrageous designs' continued. There was no such concept as a career woman, let alone one as ambitious and successful as Clarice, who not only employed but also inspired young women to follow their ambition.
Gaining much attention from the national press, her fame contradicted her personality. Clarice was a fiercely shy person. As her fame and stature grew, her close working relationship with Colley Shorter developed. Following the death of his wife in 1940, Clarice and Shorter married.
But for the newly married ceramic trailblazer, the decades of growth and achievement were about to come to an end with the start of the Second World War. With resources scarce and materials at a premium, the Government permitted only white ware to be made.Unable to continue her design work, Clarice instead found herself back on the production floor helping to make the ware. Her creative talents only found an outlet through gardening at her home at Chetwynd House, Clayton. Following the end of the war, tastes had changed. No longer did people seek contemporary, outlandish designs. People wanted more conservative ware. Coming, partly, to terms with the fact those heady days of the 20s and 30s were over, she took a more low key role in production at the factory. In 1963, her husband Colley Shorter died, leaving Clarice to sell the factory and retire. Despite a revival of her work, in January 1972, Clarice turned down the chance to attend an exhibition of her work in Brighton, instead merely providing comments for the event. Clarice Cliff died 10 months later, leaving behind a legacy which has gone on to inspire future generations of artists and ceramicists the world over.
Perhaps even more importantly, she challenged preconceptions of a woman's role in industry. Excerpted and adapted from a Stoke on Trent article by Adam Gratton.