Design: Ovaltine queen in a post-ceramic world

Revered by collectors, the bright and cosy work of Clarice Cliff is seen by many in the design world as the pottery equivalent of Enid Blyton. By Alan Powers
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The Independent Culture
BEVIS HILLIER once compared Clarice Cliff's "genuine feyness and business acumen" to that of her contemporary, Enid Blyton, whom even liberal parents admit as a useful way of getting reluctant children started on reading. Perhaps collecting Clarice Cliff pottery is a kind of infantile regression to the Famous Five, an impossibly happy land of marigolds and sunsets. It certainly has the same capacity as Blyton's work to repel as many people as it attracts.

Both fans and detractors now have an excellent opportunity to re-evaluate their prejudices in this the centenary year of her birth in Tunstall in the Potteries, with an exhibition at Wedgwood in Stoke-on-Trent and London auctions devoted to her work at Christie's South Kensington and Bonhams - to say nothing of a host of timely reproductions and publications.

Clarice Cliff's exuberant expression of self-taught naivety brought condemnation from design theorists in the 1930s soon after her pottery first appeared and from historians in more recent years. Cliff collectors see this merely as snobbery and prejudice. As a working-class woman, they say, Cliff bravely made her way in the world, while the design reformers of modernisation preached to an almost empty church. True. Part of the prejudice is misogyny, but, consciously or not, it is derived from a mistrust of the kind of "comfort ceramics" among which her work stands out so shamelessly. Clarice Cliff lovers have chosen the Ovaltine of antiques, but there is more in the larder of life.

Why do people collect pottery? In some cases, they think it is beautiful. In other cases they think it is rare and therefore valuable, but pottery, among all "collectibles", seems to answer most to the needs of the hungry personality that requires the objectification of its desires and anxieties.

Clarice Cliff was lucky to be given such a catchily alliterative name perfectly complementing the faux-continental quality of her pottery designs which delighted the public when launched in 1928. Encouraged by Colley Shorter, the owner of the pottery firm AJ Wilkinson where she worked, Cliff was a natural who transmitted the "jazz style" of 1920s Paris to sleepy Stoke-on-Trent.

Her rationale was simple. In London shops in the winter of 1926 everything seemed so dreary. "Why not design something quite different as regards colour and form?" she asked, "something to make our tables brighter and introduce more vivid colour and modern design into pottery?" The "Bizarre" range - geometric or floral, in bright blues, oranges and greens, with her signature on every backstamp - was a howling success.

From the year of Clarice Cliff's death in 1972, when the first large exhibition of her work was held in Brighton, these jumpy objects delighted a younger generation all over again and continue to do so. What is the peculiar charm of these pots, which Queen Mary considered "awful"? Len Griffin, founder of the Clarice Cliff Collectors" Club in 1981 (and author of Clarice Cliff: the Art of Bizarre, published by Pavilion on 27 May), explains how her "Rhodanthe" pattern, one of the most commonly available, acts as a lure to new collectors: "It is almost like finding your front door on a completely strange and unknown house: you approach it, recognise something, and go in to discover a whole new world."

The Clarice Cliff revival in the Seventies went with other arch, ironic, camp tastes and a fondness for the colour orange. It was part of the post- modern refusal to deal with the disordered world of the grown-ups until they had started to behave better, but one of the virtues of opening the door of the unknown house, as described by Griffin, is that it can lead to the collecting of other things complex enough to stimulate a genuine engagement with the world.

As well as its exhibition, Wedgwood has announced a new range of reproduction Clarice Cliff wares for which it owns the rights. This is rather less jolly news. England's leading pottery company, although no longer British- owned, has sunk into the kind of aesthetic necrophilia which designers such as Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper were trying to escape from in the 1930s. Almost no new pottery of any artistic interest is currently being made in Stoke-on-Trent, and this is at a time when art schools are producing hundreds of new designers many of whom are far more talented than Clarice Cliff. Surely the smiling collectors do not want their endorsement of Clarice Cliff as a big-selling brand name to block the path of some new Clarice Cliff as yet undiscovered?

`The Art of Bizarre' is at the Wedgwood Visitors' Centre, Stoke-on-Trent until 5 Sept (01782 282542). Clarice Cliff auctions at Christie's South Kensington, London SW7 (0171-581 7611) on 21 May and 10 November; at Bonham's, Knightsbridge, London SW1 (0171-393 3942) on 8 June. For details of the Clarice Cliff Collectors' Club send a sae to CCCC, Fantasque House, Tennis Drive, Nottingham NG7 1AE