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Who was one of the most versatile artists of the Art Nouveau Movement?

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Art Nouveau
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Art Nouveau was a phenomenon with many faces. Between 1890 and 1910, artists developed a variety of styles from the plant-like forms of the Belgian-French Art Nouveau to the ornamentation of the Viennese Secession. They were all striving to create a new, modern style and pursued a comprehensive renewal of art and, in some countries, a renewed national identity.


                                   
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Having a Little Fun with Clarice Cliff
by Bob Brooke

 


Creative, quirky, imaginative—all goods words to describe the pottery of Clarice Cliff, an English ceramic artist who created works from1922 to 1963. She began working in the pottery industry when she was just 13. At first, she gilded pieces, adding gold lines on traditional wares. Once she mastered this, she learned freehand painting at another pottery while studying art and sculpture at the Burslem School of Art in the evenings.

Most young women in the Staffordshire Potteries worked for “apprentice wages,” and after mastering a particular task, stayed with that to maximize their income. Cliff was ambitious and acquired skills in modeling figurines and vases, gilding, keeping pattern books and hand painting ware, including outlining, enameling, and banding while working as an apprentice. In the early 1920s the decorating manager Jack Walker brought Cliff to the attention of one of the pottery’s owners, Colley Shorter, who offered her an apprenticeship.

A. J. Wilkinson's gave Cliff a second apprenticeship in 1924, primarily as a “modeler” on conservative, Victorian wares. She also worked with the factory designers John Butler and Fred Ridgway.

By 1925, she had begun modeling stylized figures, people, ducks, as well as floral embossed Davenport ware. Eventually, the owners of Wilkinson’s recognized her wide range of skills and, in 1927 gave her own studio at the adjoining Newport Pottery which they bought in 1920. Here, she decorated some of the old defective “ghost,” or white ware in her own freehand patterns. For these she used on-glaze enamel colors which enabled a brighter palette than underglaze colors.



Cliff creatively covered the imperfections in the ghost pieces in simple patterns of triangles, in a style that she called “Bizarre.” The earliest examples had just a handpainted mark, usually in a rust colored paint—“Bizarre by Clarice Cliff,” sometimes with “Newport Pottery” added underneath. To everyone’s surprise, it was an immediate hit. Soon, a young painter named Gladys Scarlett began helping her with the ware. Soon the company produced a more professional “backstamp,” which displayed Cliff's facsimile signature and proclaimed "Hand painted Bizarre by Clarice Cliff, Newport Pottery England." Bizarre became an umbrella name for her entire pattern range. The pottery referred to the first pieces Cliff produced as “Original Bizarre.” By this time, Cliff's team of decorators had grown to 70 young painters, mostly women which she nicknamed her “Bizarre girls.”

In March 1927, Colley Shorter, one of the pottery’s owners, sent Cliff to the Royal College of Art in Kensington, London, to study in March and May.

After her studies at the Royal College of Art, Cliff’s pottery shapes from 1929 onwards had a more Art Deco influence, often angular and geometric. Abstract and cubist patterns appeared on these shapes, such as the 1929 Ravel on Cliff's Conical-shaped ware, which was an abstract leaf and flower pattern named after the composer. Ravel was another of Cliff's Bizarre shape ideas which became popular in the 1930s.

In 1928 Cliff produced a simple, hand painted pattern of Crocus flowers in orange, blue and purple, each flower being constructed with confident upward strokes. Then she added green leaves by holding the piece upside down and painting thin lines amongst the flowers. The wares vibrant colors instantly produced large sales.

Crocus was unusual in that it was produced on both tableware, tea and coffeeware, and 'fancies', novelty items made primarily as gift ware. The pattern had many color variations, including Purple Crocus, Blue Crocus, Sungleam Crocus, and Spring Crocus. It was even produced after the war, the final pieces with Clarice Cliff marks being made in 1963.



But in 1929 at the same time as she started producing her colorful cubist and landscape designs, Cliff's modeling took on a new style, influenced by European Art Deco designers Désny, Tétard Freres, Josef Hoffmann and others, that she had seen in design journals.

In the mid 1930s, tastes changed and heavily modeled ware came into vogue. The My Garden series issued from 1934 onwards led the way, with small flowers modeled as a handle or base on more rounded shapes. These were fully painted in bright colors. Cliff covered the body of her wares in thin color washes—“Verdant' was green, “Sunrise” yellow, and so on. The vessels included vases, bowls, jugs, even a biscuit barrel (cookie jar), and became very popular as gift ware. The pottery produced it in more muted colors until the start of World War II in 1939.

The company never exported Clarice Cliff’s visually explosive designs of the 1920s and '1930s from her Staffordshire-based studios to the United States. However, it was Americans, including a number of celebrities, who became the most competitive buyers of her way-out wares. Further outrageous patterns, vividly colored, such as Melon and Circle Tree appeared in 1930.

Experts believe the avant-garde art museums and galleries of Paris during the late 1920s inspired Cliff’s nonconformist shapes and kaleidoscopic colors. British consumers were both awestruck and dumbfounded by the unashamedly Cubist influences displayed in Cliff's post-Paris ceramics. It was the boldest, brightest, wildest stuff they had ever seen. Queen Mary reportedly had another word for it: "Ghastly!" But in time, even Her Majesty fell under its spell and bought a tea set, albeit in one of the more conservative patterns.

It was Cliff's fearlessness and disregard for convention that unwittingly produced the designs that are now most desirable to collectors. Clarice Cliff’s work is all about pattern and shape, and together these alone dictate the prices today. The rule: A geometric pattern like Football or Sunray can make up for a frumpy shape, and conversely, an abstract shape, such as the angular Biarritz, can offset a ho-hum floral. If a collector can find a piece that combines a coveted pattern with an offbeat shape, they’ve hit the jackpot.

Most collectors buy Clarice Cliff's designs to own and enjoy. Basically, any Clarice Cliff piece in a rare pattern is a hot ticket at auction, bringing in competitive bids at stratospheric prices, whether it's an oversized wall charger or a humble jam pot.

A single-handled lotus vase, which look similar to ancient Egyptian water jugs, sold for t $7,475, both in the Honolulu and Latona Dahlia patterns. A 6-inch Fantasque series 265 vase in the seldom-seen Green House pattern brought even more at $9,970, and a Bizarre series stepped vase in the highly coveted Tennis motif set a record for a Clarice Cliff vase at auction when it sold to an American collector for $18,276!

Rare combinations of shape and pattern attract very high prices at auction. The world record price for a piece of Clarice Cliff is held by Christie's, South Kensington, London, which sold an 18-inch charger in the May Avenue pattern for $53,504. Shortly after this the same auction house sold an 8-inch vase in Sunspots for $27,091.

"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," said Cliff in an interview.

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