Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Cliff Notes

If this appears on a different day to my last post, I will have accomplished at least something I've not managed most of last week; I don't seem to be able to get that right at all!  Anyhow...

In between visiting the ceramic art gallery in California and the pottery display in the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, I was browsing the biography section of my library and found Lynn Knight's book about Clarice Cliff.

Loads of folks here in Britain have heard of her, but I never had until reading this book, which I quite enjoyed.  I have to confess that I am still not that in love with ceramics, though I do appreciate them more than I did.  The thing I really liked about Knight's book was that it described so much of what life in the inter-war period was like for an ordinary working class family in Tunstall, one of the towns in Stoke, AKA The Potteries.  After all, everyone didn't live a Downton Abbey lifestyle.  Except that Cliff was far from ordinary.

She determined early on that she would be a designer, a relatively lofty position in the trade (where, typical of Britain, every job has its place in the pecking order) and certainly not one generally held by a woman.  She visited aunts who were pottery painters, took art classes and even left a steady and reliable job at one company to join another where she felt she would have more opportunity to advance.  This was a very unusual choice in that day, but her instincts proved her right.  Through her own talent and ambition, and perhaps aided by a clandestine relationship with her married boss, she advanced to have her own workshop and painters at a relatively early age.   The relationship with the boss is particularly interesting as she certainly never had the appearance of a 'femme fatale'.

It's clear that the whole of her energy went into her work and that she had a nearly inexhaustible source of ideas for new shapes and colours.  She was sent to further training and art classes and travelled to Europe to learn new ideas.  Cliff didn't just come up with pictures to decorate pieces, she designed new shapes.  For example, in the period following the first world war, there was a demand for tea sets that took up less space and she supplied flat-sided pots and cups that all fit together neatly.  She also developed new purposes for pottery, things like decorative ashtrays (now that more women smoked) and things to hang on the dining room or kitchen wall.

Another contribution she made was to send groups of her painters - only the prettiest ones of course - to London and other big cities to do painting demonstrations in large department stores to draw attention to the new pieces available from A.J. Wilkinson's.  By this time there were a very few other notable female pottery designers and some other successful business women, but her story was one of the very few that began from a working class background and in a place other than London.

I must admit that very little of her work is to my taste and we won't be collecting her pieces in this house, though we could use a tea set where all the pieces actually match and one with flat sides has a lot of appeal!  She is mainly known for the line labelled 'Bizarre' and this is a theme she carried on for most of her career, though there are some much more conservative designs that I like quite a bit.  I would need to check the book out again (and for all I know it's been sold...) to find those pattern names.  However, if you are generally a fan, you could always join the collectors' club.

She lived at home until a relatively advanced age (37) and then finally broke all the rules and found her own flat, which of course she decorated extravagantly with her own artwork.  In 1940, after the death of his wife, Colley Shorter and Clarice were married and she went to live at his house, called Chetwynd House, until her death in 1972.

This name, 'Chetwynd House' is apparently rather popular in that part of the world.  There is a Chetwynd House in Stafford which was a post office during the lifetime of Cliff and Shorter.  Colley Shorter apparently named his home for another family home in Wolstanton in Newcastle (under Lyme, not upon Tyne), another part of the Potteries urban area.  That building is now the Wolstanton Working Men's Club. 

Chetwynd House is still a family home, though the present owners apparently have to cope with the fact of their home's famous past resident.  I find it rather satisfying that the fame is not attached to Colley Shorter, owner of A. J. Wilkinson's pottery company, but to the ambitious and talented woman, Clarice Cliff.

1 comment:

Sandra said...

Hi Shelley, this may be my second comment. I was thrilled to read your blog today about ceramic art and it just so happened that I was volunteering all last week at our new American Museum of Ceramic Art location for the grand opening. If you lived closer I would be able to influence you! Most of all I love the depth you go to explore ALL are an amazing talented researcher/writer. Check out the AMOCA website or check them out on facebook for more infor. Love you...Sandra