A Guide to Clarice Cliff Pottery: Prices and Motifs

A Clarice Cliff 'blue Chintz' Pattern Tea Service

From the artful elegance of her transferware pieces to the bold colors and dynamic forms of her Art Deco Designs, British master Clarice Cliff trail-blazed her own path into ceramics celebrity. Today, Clarice Cliff pottery continues to capture the eye of cultured collectors, so in the spirit of her ongoing notoriety, this article will highlight her legendary career, why her wares are so beloved, and the various styles collectors clamor for on the auction market to this day. 

Who Was Clarice Cliff?

Born in 1899 in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent, one of England’s hubs for ceramic production, Clarice Cliff was born into a large working-class family and began work as an apprentice decorator at a local pottery factory in her early teens. She spent several years in Stoke-on-Trent learning skills and techniques, such as gilding and enameling, so she could lavish amazing designs and motifs on ceramic vessels, and she paired her work with nighttime study at the Burslem School of Art. Then, in 1916, Cliff took on a new position at the A.J. Wilkinson ceramic factory in Burslem, where her true talents as a ceramic artist were realized. In addition to sending her to London in the 1920s for a brief study stint at the Royal College of Art, Wilkinson’s owners also awarded Cliff her own studio at the nearby Newport Pottery factory.

Once installed at Newport Pottery, Cliff set out on a series of innovative designs in 1927 under what she called “Bizarre” wares. These vessels broke new ground in response to rising trends in Art Deco motif, and their immediate popularity meant that Cliff could hire apprentices to help decorate her designs. Her oversight of one of the era’s most thriving workshops – totaling by some accounts than seventy assistants – by the end of the 1920s led to her promotion to Art Director of all of Newport Pottery in 1930, a remarkable accomplishment for a female artist in the early twentieth century. 

Cliff dominated the ceramics market of the 1930s with her brilliant combination of the bold geometry of the Art Deco movement and the defined, saturated colors associated with DeStijl masters like Theo van Doesburg or Piet Mondrian. This use of the modern art visual language in her wares granted them a vibrance and freshness that contemporary audiences adored.

The excitement for Cliff’s creations waned following World War II, and by the mid-1960s she officially retired. Her work was recognized in January 1972 in a solo exhibition, and though Cliff died later that same year, the interest in her work began to rise once again over the remainder of the decade. By the 1980s, reproductions of some of her most iconic series, like her ‘Age of Jazz’ figurines, were being released in large numbers. Meanwhile, museums began gobbling up her pieces; today, her wares can be seen in major collections like those of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Clarice Cliff in 1933

Clarice Cliff (right) with visitors to Newport Pottery in 1933. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Original ‘Bizarre’ Clarice Cliff Pottery

Assessing Clarice Cliff pottery can be a challenge because, though she is best known for her “Bizarre” line, very often that term is applied as an umbrella category for different patterns she developed between the 1920s and 1930s. Looking for “Bizarre” pattern pieces on the auction market is sure to result in a wide variety of wares, so it can be helpful to dive a little deeper to learn what “Original Bizarre” means.

When Cliff first started exploring her “Bizarre” style, she experimented on old pieces of white ceramic held by Newport Pottery that were never sold because of imperfections in the vessel or its glaze. Cliff applied an array of bold color glazes in geometric planes to these damaged wares, not only hiding any errors of the vessel but transforming the piece altogether. The rapid rise of these designs to popularity meant Cliff could stop using the rejected vessels and instead make her own; it is these earliest versions, though, like this Lotus Jug, that are often called “Original Bizarre”, because they date to these early days. The “Bizarre” moniker, however, stuck around into the subsequent decade, appearing on popular lines such as “Bonjour,”“Melon,” and “Blue Lugano” in the early years of the 1930s and with its backstamp appearing on wares until 1936. 

Original Clarice Cliff Bizarre backstamp 1928

The original Clarice Cliff ‘Bizarre’ backstamp, circa 1928. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A Clarice Cliff May Avenue Bonjour Preserve Pot and Cover

Lot 114: A Clarice Cliff ‘May Avenue’ Bonjour Preserve Pot and Cover, Christie’s London (20 November 2005)

Clarice Cliff 'Football' a rare Yo-Yo vase (shape 379), circa 1930

Lot 79: Clarice Cliff ‘Football’: A Rare Yo-Yo Vase, Bonhams, London (18 March 2009), Estimated: £7,000-£9,000

A Clarice Cliff `lotus' Jug and Dish, circa 1930

Lot 276: A Clarice Cliff ‘Lotus’ Jug and Dish, circa 1930, Sotheby’s, London (16 November 2006), Estimated: £1,000-£1,500

Clarice Cliff Specialty Shapes and Patterns

Given the rapid success of her initial “Bizarre” pottery and her novel design aesthetic, Cliff was invited in the mid-1930s to join a team of artists, including those associated with the British Bloomsbury Group, who would help to develop new designs for ceramic patterns that spoke to the modern era. These wares, such as Cliff’s ‘Circus’ pattern, were eventually featured in Harrod’s London in 1934 as part of a ‘Modern Art for the Table” campaign. At the same time, Cliff continued to explore some of her “Bizarre” themes in patterns like the colorful “Honolulu” and “Fantasque” motifs, both of which often depicted vignettes of the landscape illuminate in bright, enameled colors.

Clarice Cliff 'Fantasque' Vase

Lot 260: Clarice Cliff  ‘Fantasque’ Vase, Shapiro Auctioneers, Woollahra (8 December 2013), Estimated: AUD1,500-AUD2,500, Sold: AUD1,920

Clarice Cliff Bizarre' Stamford Teapot

Lot 184: Clarice Cliff ‘Bizarre’ Stamford Teapot, Shapiro Auctioneers, Woollahra (27 February 2018), Estimated: AUD800-AUD1,200, Sold: AUD2,640 

The Chintz Pattern:

A Clarice Cliff 'blue Chintz' Pattern Tea Service

Lot 647: A Clarice Cliff ‘Blue Chintz’ Pattern Tea Service circa 1933, Stephan Welz & Co, Alphen Drive, South Africa ( 2 March 2016), Estimated: R20,000-R30,000, Sold: R110,000 

The Circus'- an extensive dinner service, designed for Clarice Cliff by Dame Laura Knight

Lot 171: ‘The Circus’: An Extensive Dinner Service, designed for Clarice Cliff by Dame Laura Knight circa 1934, Sotheby’s, London (31 May 2007), Estimated: £6,000-£8,000

Clarice Cliff Figurines

One of the most innovative facets of Cliff’s production was her foray into figurines. She developed a number of series in her Art Deco aesthetic, some to be functional – like her “Lido Lady” ashtray – and others to serve as conversation-starting centerpieces. One such iconic series was the “Age of Jazz” figures, who originally emerged in the 1930s and were purportedly inspired by Cliff’s appreciation for the jazz tunes flooding radio waves at the time. One set of figurines from Clarice Cliff’s ‘Age of Jazz’ series broke records in 2018 when it sold at a Wooley & Wallis auction to an international collector for £15,000.

A Clarice Cliff 'age of Jazz' Figure

Lot 52: A Clarice Cliff ‘Age of Jazz’ Figure, “The Musicians”, Raffan Kelaher & Thomas, Sydney, Australia (24 February 2014), Estimated: AUD3,000-AUD5,000, Sold: AUD18,500

An Extremely Rare Clarice Cliff 'age of Jazz' Figural Group

Lot 30: An Extremely Rare Clarice Cliff ‘Age of Jazz’ Figure (“Dancing Couple”), Hannam’s Auctioneers, Selborne, UK (25 August 2016), Estimated: £3,000-£5,000, Sold: £7,800

A Rare Clarice Cliff -Lido Lady- Ashtray

Lot 140: A Rare Clarice Cliff “Lido Lady” Ashtray, Hartleys Auctioneers and Valuers, Ilkley, United Kingdom (2 December 2009), Estimated: £3,500-£4,500 

Investing in Clarice Cliff

Clarice Cliff pottery at auction continues to generate great interest and demand across the world. As we’ve seen in this price guide, this demand means pieces that are in excellent condition or are incredibly rare can realize impressive prices. For those who truly adore Cliff’s aesthetic, though, these fees are a small price to pay to own a piece of ceramic history.

If, however, the bold colors and clean-cut contours of her Art Deco designs don’t appeal to you, or if their price point is beyond what you’d prefer to invest, you can also consider seeking out surviving examples of her “Tonquin” pattern works that offer an altogether alternative aesthetic. Though achieving less expensive prices than Cliff’s Art Deco designs, works from her Tonquin transferware line for Royal Staffordshire are equally splendid.

Brown Transferware Pieces, Wedgwood, Clarice Cliff

Lot 3304: (26) Brown Transferware Pieces, Wedgwood, Cliff, Kaminski Auctions, Wakefield, MA (April, 2007)

Regardless of which facets of Clarice Cliff pottery you find appealing, investing in a piece from her studio means more than buying a beautiful work of decorative art. It also means continuing the legacy of one of the most accomplished female ceramicists known to history, a fact that makes her pieces all the more collectible.

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