Sunday, November 5, 2023

Clarice Cliff - Innovative Ceramic Artist: Her Rags to Riches Story

By Mary Dodge Allen

Clarice Cliff became the Art Director at a prestigious British pottery company in 1930 - an era when the term “career woman” was practically unheard of. 

How did a young girl from a poor, working-class family become an internationally celebrated ceramic artist and pottery designer?

Clarice Cliff in the 1930's (Wikipedia)

Clarice was born on January 20, 1899, in the town of Tunstall in Staffordshire, England. Clarice was the fourth of seven children born to Harry and Ann Cliff. Her father worked at an iron foundry, and her mother took in laundry to earn extra income to support their large family.

At the age of 13, Clarice left school and began working at a local pottery factory as a gilder (painting gold lines on pottery). The traditional path for a woman was to work in only one aspect of pottery design, to gain skills and rise above meager apprentice wages. But Clarice was more interested in developing her skills in all aspects of pottery-making - modeling vases, dishes and figurines, as well as outlining, hand-painting and enameling dishware.

A. J. Wilkinson pottery factory at Middleport, Burslem. (the

In 1916 she joined the decorating department at A. J. Wilkinson’s Royal Staffordshire Pottery, in the nearby town of Burslem. By 1920, Clarice’s considerable artistic talent caught the attention of company owner, Colley Shorter, who took on the role of her mentor. He nurtured Clarice's design skills over the next few years and even arranged for her to study Art Deco trends in Paris and then attend a brief course at the Royal College of Art in London.

Clarice’s big breakthrough at A. J. Wilkinson came in the mid-1920’s, when she was given the freedom to hand-paint her original Art Deco geometric designs on whiteware 'factory seconds' to cover the slight flaws and make them saleable. Clarice expanded her colorful patterns when Egyptian images became popular after the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb. 

Her stylized Egyptian and Art Deco ceramic designs became a hit with buyers. Clarice Cliff's pottery became known as “Bizarre Ware” – because of her use of vivid colors, bold patterns and the innovative shapes she created in her ceramic dishware.

Early "Bizarre Ware" geometric design on an 'Athens'-shaped jug (Wikipedia)

1930 "Bizarre Ware" conical-shaped coffee pot, creamer and sugar in 'Ravel' pattern 

First of a number of printed stamps used on "Bizarre Ware" (Wikipedia)

Clarice Cliff's pottery pieces became so popular, the company hired a team of ceramic painters to work under Clarice’s direction. They became known as the “Bizarre Girls.”

"Bizarre Girls" pictured in 1930's wearing artist berets; "Bizarre Girls" reunion in 1986 (Wikipedia)

In 1927, Clarice was given her own studio at Newport Pottery, a company also owned by Colley Shorter. By 1929, Clarice was supervising a team of nearly seventy “Bizarre Girls,” hand-painting her popular and distinctive ceramic ware patterns. One year later, Clarice was named Art Director at both Newport Pottery and A. J. Wilkinson, the two adjoining factories producing her “Bizarre Ware.”

Collection of 1930's Bizarre Ware designs (Public Domain)

As Art Director, Clarice took Colley Shorter's advice and began promoting “Bizarre Ware” in new and innovative ways (for the time). She produced color printed leaflets and catalogues; placed articles in home décor and women’s magazines; staged in-person ceramic painting demonstrations at department stores; and enlisted the endorsement of popular celebrities in advertisements.

Clarice Cliff - ceramic painting demonstration (Wikipedia)

During the 1930’s, Clarice Cliff became a household name in Britain, and her pottery was sold throughout the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the United States. Even during the Depression, sales of her pottery remained strong, especially in the top London stores like Harrod’s and Selfridges.

"Bizarre Ware" conical-shaped teapot in 'Fantasque' pattern (Public Domain)

"Bizarre Ware" vase in 'Foam and Suns' pattern (Public Domain)

"Bizarre Ware" plate in 'Honolulu' pattern (Public Domain)

Clarice Cliff was featured in an article in California’s Pasadena Evening Post. In this article, 
Clarice was quoted as saying, “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.”

In this article, Clarice was pictured with a five-foot tall ‘horse’ called Bizooka, made entirely out of “Bizarre Ware.” 

Clarice Cliff Collectors Club Poster depicting Bizooka, the horse made of "Bizarre Ware"
 (Public Domain)

After WWII broke out in 1939, pottery manufacturers in England faced wartime restrictions – only utility ware (white pottery) could be produced.

In 1940, Colley Shorter’s wife Ann, an invalid for many years, passed away. Later that year, he married Clarice. Since her colorful patterns couldn’t be produced during the war, Clarice played a lesser role at the company. Instead, she focused her creative talents on maintaining the four-acre garden at her new home with Colley Shorter, known as Chetwynd House.

Chetwynd House, Clayton Village, England (Public Domain)

After the war ended, A. J. Wilkinson and Newport Pottery resumed selling pottery under Clarice Cliff’s name. Then in 1964 – the year after Colley Shorter died - Clarice, now 65 years old, decided to retire. She sold the pottery company to a pottery firm called Midwinter. Clarice died in 1972 at Chetwynd House, after a brief illness.

In 1982, the Clarice Cliff Collectors Club was founded.

In 1992, Wedgwood obtained ownership of the ‘Clarice Cliff’ brand name and produced reproductions of her most popular pottery designs from the 1930’s.

In 2009, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum opened its new Ceramics Galleries, and Clarice Cliff’s designs were included in its 20th Century collection.

In 2021, a British movie about Clarice Cliff’s life, called The Colour Room, was released.

"Bizarre Ware" pottery remains highly collectible. Prices for Clarice's vintage pottery can range from hundreds to several thousand dollars, per piece.

Clarice Cliff was the first ceramic artist to introduce bold colors, patterns and unique designs to the pottery manufacturing world. 

What do you think of Clarice Cliff’s “Bizarre Ware” pottery designs? 

Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers. 

Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.

Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:   Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books


  1. Thank you for posting today. I love the whimsy of Clarice's designs! Some of them remind me of Dr. Seuss's creations, especially the Honolulu pattern!

    1. Hi Connie, I love her designs, too! She was an amazingly creatve person.