Clarice Cliff, by Lynn Knight

Queen of cup-and-saucer cubism
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The Independent Culture

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. In 1928 the range known as "Bizarre", with her signature, was launched by Shorter.

Her bright art deco vases, candlesticks, jars and tea sets were like a vulgar version of cubism. They went with short skirts, bobbed hair and votes for women. Bizarre became big business, an essential part of the new visual language of the 1920s. More paintresses were employed, the factory expanded, exports grew.

Cliff bought a ruby-coloured Austin 7 though she continued to live at home and to conceal her relationship with Shorter. Her designs became more exuberant, elaborate themes of line and colour. If she used natural forms, she made them fantastical.

She experimented with glazes and was given liberty to produce what she wanted. A tea service in 1929 that was all edges and angles: "cup and saucer cubism", the Daily Express called it. In the early 1930s, she was made art director; 27 designers worked for her. She caught the spirit of the times in her jazz-age dancing figures, art deco ashtrays and cigarette holders, modern-art dinner plates. She moved from her mother's house to her own flat, decorated it in bright colours, smoked, had a telephone, and was unforthcoming about h erself.

Colley Shorter's wife died in 1939 and a year later Cliff married him. He was 58, she was 41; they had been together 13 years. She moved to Chetwynd, his Arts-and-Crafts country house, and travelled with him in first-class cabins and his chauffeur-driven Rolls. They were married 20 years and, after his death, she sold the factory. Her work then figured in galleries and art deco exhibitions. Only through her work was she attention seeking; she revealed no identity beyond it. But bright pieces of Clarice Cliff will continue to turn up on Flog It and on Portobello stalls for a long while yet - emblems of modernist cheer in the home.

Diana Souhami's 'Wild Girls' is published by Phoenix