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Bizarre Clarice Cliff tea set from 1930s brews up major interest thanks to its rarity

Posted on 07/04/2021 in Press Coverage

On Monday April 12 we celebrate a new beginning as Hansons’ salerooms in Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Oxfordshire and London reopen for free valuations by appointment. Once again, we can begin to share the excitement of new finds together.

Wonderful discoveries are sure to emerge because, even in lockdown, fascinating objects reach us. Right now, we’re bowled over by a stunning item spotted during routine cataloguing by ceramics expert Barry Jones at our Derbyshire HQ.

Amid the Royal Crown Derby, Doulton, Royal Worcester, Crown Devon Pottery, Beswick animals and studio pottery which he loves to assess, his eyes were drawn to a bold Art Deco tea set.

It featured a cube-shaped teapot, cup and saucer, milk jug, sugar bowl and small plate featuring a loose floral decoration in blue and yellow. Intrigued, he turned over the teapot to read the base stamp. All was revealed: ‘Designed by Frank Brangwyn, First edition, Produced in Bizarre by Clarice Cliff, Wilkinson Ltd, England, 1934’.

Barry’s smile lit up the saleroom. Here was a classic from Clarice Cliff, a Staffordshire ceramic artist/designer born in the Victorian era who blew away the cobwebs to usher in modern imagination. And this latest find bore all her classic hallmarks.

Her renowned Bizarre wares display her ability to design both patterns and also the shapes they go on. This distinguished Clarice above any other designers in the Staffordshire Potteries. As for Sir Frank William Brangwyn (1867-1956), the other name on the base of the teapot, he was a Welsh artist, painter, watercolourist, printmaker, illustrator and designer who, like Clarice, enjoyed immense success. It was, quite simply, a formidable find.

Clarice Cliff has a cult following and celebrity collectors include actress Whoopi Goldberg and Anna Wintour, the global editorial director of Vogue. Rare examples of her work can sell for hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds - and this tea set appears to be rare.

Barry’s research drew no comparisons. He could find nothing similar sold previously at auction. When we shared a photo of the tea set on social media a Clarice Cliff collector of more than 30 years standing swiftly requested images of the base stamp. He, too, had never seen the tea set.

Rarity is the key to high prices and this find may surprise us. Barry decided on a modest estimate of £300-£400 but thinks it could make £500-£600. Christie’s holds the auction record for a Clarice Cliff piece - a 1933 charger called 'May Avenue' achieved £39,950 in 2003.

Could our Clarice Cliff discovery spark a bidding battle? We hope so, not least because Clarice, an active artist from 1922 to 1963, is one of our own, a Midlands girl. Born in 1899, she was one of seven children brought up in a terraced house in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent. Her father, Harry Thomas Cliff, worked at an iron foundry. Her mother, Ann, took in washing to supplement the family income.

After school Clarice visited an aunt who was a hand painter at a pottery company. She liked what she saw and at 13 took a job in the pottery industry. Her first work was as a gilder, adding gold lines to traditional wares. Once she had mastered this, she changed jobs to learn freehand painting, at the same time studying art and sculpture at Burslem School of Art.

In 1916, Clarice moved to the A J Wilkinson factory at Newport, Burslem, to improve her career opportunities. Most young women in the Staffordshire Potteries were on apprentice wages and, having mastered a particular task, usually stayed to maximise their income.

But Clarice was ambitious and keen to acquire broader skills. Consequently, she learned how to model figurines and vases, gilding, keeping pattern books, outlining and enamelling. In the early 1920s she came to the attention of one of the factory owners, Arthur Colley Austin Shorter. He who was 17 years older than Clarice, nurtured her skills and later became her husband. She received special attention and visited the Royal College of Art and Pars

At 25 Clarice was given a second apprenticeship at A J Wilkinson as a modeller and also worked with factory designers John Butler and Fred Ridgway. They produced conservative, Victorian-style wares. But Clarice’s skills were recognised and in 1927 she was given her own studio at the adjoining Newport Pottery which Shorter had bought in 1920. Here she was allowed to decorate some of the old defective 'glost' white wares in her own freehand patterns. For these she used on-glaze enamel colours, which enabled a brighter palette than underglaze colours.

She covered imperfections in simple patterns of triangles in a style she called 'Bizarre'. To the surprise of the company's senior salesman Ewart Oakes, when he took a car load to a major stockist, it was immediately popular. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Clarice Cliff tea set is due to be sold on April 16 in Hansons’ April 15-20 Antiques and Collectors Auction. Entries are invited for Hansons’ May Antiques and Collectors and Fine Art sales.

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