It’s a Sign!

By Louise Irvine

Clarice Cliff, the pioneering Art Deco ceramic designer, has been honored with a prestigious Historic England blue plaque that was unveiled on the façade of her former home in Shelton, Stoke-on-Trent. Blue plaques have been placed on buildings associated with notable figures in London for more than 150 years, but this is only the second time that an official blue plaque has been placed outside the capital city. It is an acknowledgment of Stoke city’s historical and artistic significance and an amazing tribute to Clarice, recognizing her importance as a trailblazing female designer in the pottery industry.

Born in 1899, Clarice Cliff left school at age 13 to start work as an enameller in the Staffordshire Potteries. The ambitious young woman rose rapidly to become the first female art director in the industry and the first to brand her work. At the outset of her career, she moved factories, mastering new skills rarely taken up by women. Clarice’s talents were recognized by the management at A. J. Wilkinson’s factory and she was given her own studio in 1927, where she trained decorators to disguise defective glazed white ware with her brightly colored patterns.

Clarice’s exuberant Bizarre ware was an immediate success with women anxious to brighten up their drab post-war surroundings. Within a year, Wilkinson’s entire Newport Pottery was given over to Bizarre ware, with 70 girls hand-painting geometric motifs and abstract flowers. Her free hand Crocus design kept 20 girls busy painting tea, coffee and dinner services throughout the Depression years. Clarice was soon designing innovative shapes for her vibrant patterns which were sold at British department stores such as Harrods and Selfridge’s in London. Her Bizarre and Fantasque ware was also exported to North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Clarice’s “Bizarre Girls”, as they were affectionately known, gave painting demonstrations in store windows wearing artist’s smocks and French berets, which attracted the attention of the press. One of Clarice’s more daring marketing ploys was Bazooka, a five-foot-tall donkey made from Bizarre ware. The publicity that Clarice received was unprecedented with hundreds of articles appearing in British newspapers and women’s magazines. The public was fascinated by this new career woman of the 1930s and her audacious fun-loving designs. As she said in a Californian magazine article "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."

For twenty years, Clarice lived in her own flat at 20 Snow Hill, Shelton, which is now marked with the English Heritage blue plaque. An independent woman, she designed her own interior décor in vivid colors and she she was the first woman in Stoke-on-Trent to buy her own motor car. Clarice had a romantic affair with Wilkinson’s director, Colley Shorter, who helped promote her career, and they married in 1940 when his wife died. Clarice stopped designing during World War II although Wilkinson’s Newport Pottery sold her branded ware until the mid-1960s. She lived to see her designs appreciated by a new audience following a dazzling exhibition at Brighton Art Gallery in 1971, and she died the following year.

Clarice’s Bizarre ware has commanded extraordinary prices at auctions, and Christie’s holds the world record for an 18-inch charger in the May Avenue pattern, which sold for over $75,000 in 2004. More recently, Clarice was celebrated in the 2021 biopic movie The Color Room, starring Phoebe Dynevor and Mathew Goode as Colley Shorter. Clarice’s Art Deco designs and her uplifting journey from the shop floor to the company boardroom continue to inspire us today. Her Historic England blue plaque ensures her legacy will live on for generations to come. You will see an impressive collection of Clarice’s work in the museum’s Art Deco Gallery when WMODA reopens.

Discover more about Clarice Cliff at WMODA

Clarice Cliff – A Colorful Life

Clarice Cliff – A Bizarre Affair

Behind the Painted Mask