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Clarice Cliff: The Art of Bizarre

27 July 2013 - 21 September 2013

Clarice Cliff left school at 13 and entered the conservative Staffordshire ceramics industry as an apprentice paintress and later, unusually, became an apprentice modeller, traditionally a male preserve. She became the first woman Art Director in the Potteries where she controlled both the form and decoration of her Bizarre wares which were launched in 1927.

Bizarre ware was conceived as a bright pottery for the home and named because it was intended to surprise. Its huge and instant success was not just because of the bright modern decoration; she was the first Staffordshire designer to create streamlined shapes and she constantly created new  novelty forms that appealed to a wide range of buyers. Bizarre unusually, was produced in its own studio within the factory, staffed by over 100 dedicated paintresses.  At first decorating standard forms and then forms developed by Cliff, the paintresses usually specialised in certain designs which meant that the works often had the fluidity associated with studio rather than factory production.

Cliff was unique in that developments in contemporary art informed her designs. She visited the seminal 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris and some Bizarre patterns show the influence of exhibiting artists, particularly Robert and Sonia Delaunay.

Cliff was the first person to have her name used as part of a ceramics base stamp. By 1936 the branding ‘Bizarre’ was dropped for ‘Clarice Cliff Ware by the Royal Staffordshire Pottery’. Cliff was enabled in many ways by the owner of the Pottery, whom she later married, who was prepared to innovate within his business practice in line with her innovations.

Within its first year of production Bizarre was exported and New Zealand was always a market for her wares and sometimes the sole market for particular designs. The Clarice Cliff collector has principally acquired his collection within New Zealand. The national and international success of Bizarre is evidenced by the fact that whole restaurants were styled around her ceramic designs and that the demand for her wares continued to grow during the Great Depression.

Clarice Cliff died in 1972, the year of the first retrospective of her work.  Since then specialist Clarice Cliff auctions have been regularly held by prestigious international auction houses and the interest in  Clarice Cliff wares seems as strong as it was in the 1930s.