Bright light

6th June 2003 at 01:00
Clarice Cliff's 'Sunray' vase captures the spirit of its time, says Stuart Frost

Clarice Cliff (1899-1972) was one of the most popular British designers associated with Art Deco ceramics. Her work has been in constant demand since she began to design brightly coloured and stunningly modern ceramics in the late 1920s.

The striking bright colours, "Sunray" motif and unusual shape of this vase mean that many people will recognise it is an Art Deco object. Between 1910 and 1939 Art Deco became a truly global style, expanding from France to the US and beyond. In addition to bright colours and geometric designs, its distinctive characteristics included exoticism, symmetry, abstraction, stylised forms drawn from nature, and streamlining. Art Deco left its mark on almost every visual medium, from fine art to fashion and architecture.

Those familiar with the style, and with ceramics in particular, may recognise the hand of Clarice Cliff. She was arguably the most celebrated and prolific designer associated with British Art Deco. Her work became synonymous with strong colours and bold designs that are still surprisingly daring, stylish, modern, optimistic and fun.

Her work provokes strong reactions: people appear to either love it or loathe it. Various unflattering adjectives have been applied to describe Art Deco: unbelievably hideous; vulgar; shiny and brash; lowbrow; shamelessly derivative; coarse and clumsy. However, Art Deco was arguably the most popular style of the 20th century and is still adored by many and collected widely. The highest price paid to date for a Clarice Cliff design is just over pound;40,000. Her designs have been in high demand since they were first applied to a batch of unsold stock in the late 1920s, in a successful attempt to sell it. Mass-produced ceramics brought the new exuberant style into many homes. Cliff's designs were marketed with evocative names such as "Sunray", "Bizarre" or "Jazz".

Art Deco designers and artists drew on many sources for inspiration including the Classical world, Ancient Egypt, Meso-America and Africa. In Cliff's work, stylised elements have been drawn from nature, but the brilliant colours and the sunrays are also evocative of Japanese designs.

Zigzags, sunbursts and lightening bolts were typical of British Art Deco ceramics, and so were the contrasting colours of orange, black and yellow.

Art Deco illustrates perfectly how the art and architecture of other cultures can be adapted and used to create something refreshingly new.

After the grim realities of the Great War an optimistic style which mirrored society's hopes for a brighter future was bound to have strong appeal. This vase reflects a fascinating period of history. The boom of the Roaring Twenties was brought to an end by the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

The Depression of the 1930s had a devastating effect on the market for luxury goods but demand for inexpensive consumer products increased. This contributed to a move away from hand-production to modern methods, made possible by new materials and industrial processes. Clarice Cliff's colourful ceramics remained popular throughout the 1930s because although the designs were handpainted they still remained affordable for many.

Art Deco reflected changes in society, including the role and status of women. It was the style of the flapper girl and the factory. Cliff's designs were hand-painted on to ceramics by female workers in a production-line-like process. Art Deco products were also bought by female customers: it influenced the clothes they wore and how they decorated their homes. Women demonstrated their talents as painters, designers, craft workers and businesswomen. Clarice herself was born into a working class family in Stoke, leaving school at 13 to join a pottery. She was given her own studio in 1927 and went on to become art director of Newport Pottery, the first woman to reach that level.

The decline of Art Deco can be linked to a more sombre and austere mood in Europe as the Second World War approached and plunged the continent into turmoil. After the Munich Crisis (1938) the frivolities of Deco found less favour with the British. Clarice Cliff is well-known for her highly prized teapots and tea sets. The outbreak of war meant that many women left the industry to serve in the war effort. Tea was rationed until 1952. By then Art Deco's time had passed but its influence can still be found in the buildings of many towns and cities. It has been claimed that there is nothing profound about Art Deco or Clarice Cliff designs. Still, above all else, Art Deco objects such as the "Sunray" vase capture and reflect the spirit of the time and give a powerful visual sense of that rapidly changing society between the wars.

Stuart Frost is an education officer at the Victoria and Albert Museum


Clarice Cliff was born in 1899 to a working-class family in the Potteries.

At 13 she left school and in 1916 went to work for A J Wilkinson.

After four years of hand painting, keeping pattern books and gilding, her work was noticed by managing director, Colley Shorter.

By 1929, the company was making enormous profits from her designs.

Shorter's wife died in 1939 and he and Clarice married secretly a year later.

After his death, Clarice sold the factory and lived a reclusive life at Chetwynd until her death in 1972.


Key stages 1 and 2

Art Deco is a style which lends itself to a wide range of art and design projects. Younger children enjoy working with clay, and could make their own vase or pot. If you don't have a kiln, finished pieces can be left to dry. They can then be decorated with a Clarice Cliff-inspired design, applied with a mixture of PVA glue and paint. Depending on the age of the children, you could use different techniques to make a pot, such as joining coils or rolled slabs of clay with slip. Papier mache can be used instead of clay and the shapes, patterns and colours could be used as a starting point for children's own work in other media.

For pupils studying the history of Britain since 1930, objects such as this vase can be used to illustrate the visual feel of the period. Recreating a 1930s interior where they may have been used, can make an exciting project for older children.

KS3 and 4

Clarice Cliff Art Deco designs can be applied to just about any object. The painting on her ceramics was often created with very few brush strokes, and students should feel confident about imitating or taking inspiration from her approach. They can experiment with the different arrangements of shapes and colours used on Art Deco ceramics. Discuss the use of line, colour and pattern in Clarice Cliff's work. Ask them to record which characteristics of vase design interest them and use these as inspirations for their own ceramic work.

Clarice Cliff's work and Art Deco are ideal sources for Qualifications and Curriculum Authority unit 9B: Change your style.

For students studying history, objects such as this can be used as evidence for life at the time. Art Deco is a useful focus when exploring the changing status of women and other aspects of the period.

This vase is on display at the Vamp;A as part of the Art Deco 1910-1939 exhibition until July 20. It can be seen on the Art Deco microsite at The website contains a quiz where students can test their knowledge. The work of Clarice Cliff can also be found in Gallery 137 (British Pottery) at the Vamp;A.

Further reading

Art Deco 1910-1939 by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton and Ghislaine Wood, pound;40

Essential Art Deco by Ghislaine Wood, pound;12.95

Art Deco Fashion by Suzanne Lussier, pound;12.95

Art Deco Textiles by Charlotte Samuels, pound;30

The 20th Century Gallery: a Teacher's Guide, pound;5.95. All titles are available from the Vamp;A

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