Books: Queen of Cup-and-Saucer Cubism

Article excerpt

Clarice Cliff

By Lynn Knight

BLOOMSBURY pounds 20 (328pp) pounds 18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Some years back I tripped against a stall in the Portobello Road and broke a cream-coloured marmalade dish adorned with orange fruits and green leaves. 'You'll have to buy that,' the stallholder said, 'It's Clarice Cliff.' A friend glued it, and who knows where it now is. There were some 18 million brightly-glazed pottery pieces designed by Cliff.

This is Lynn Knight's first biography, and all credit to her that she has written such an interesting book. For Clarice Cliff left no personal letters, diaries or interviews. Her exceptional story was that as a working- class girl in Stoke on Trent at the beginning of the 20th century, at a time when there were few opportunities for women, she forged a hugely successful and lucrative career. She did this through moderate talent and inordinate hard work.

Knight makes a virtue of scant source material. Her book is weakest when she surmises about Cliff's personal life, which could never have been riveting, and best when she lets the work reflect the social context.

The potteries were the largest employers of women in north Staffordshire. Cliff left school in 1912, aged 13, and was apprenticed as a 'paintress', a gilder of decorative tableware. She got a scholarship to go to evening classes, learned how to draw shapes, plants, flowers and patterns with 'absolute sameness' and from 20, and for her entire working life, was employed by the Royal Staffordshire Pottery of A J Wilkinson, owned by the Shorter family.

Her rise there was meteoric, not least because the governor, Colley Shorter, fell for her. He was 17 years older, married with two children, irascible and rich. He paid for her further art studies, allowed her to experiment, gave her a studio and promoted her from decorator to designer. Influenced by Bakst, the Ballets Russes and cubism, she produced work in bright colours and bold geometric patterns. …