For Stoke-on-Trent, next year marks not only the 50th anniversary of the death of Clarice Cliff, but also two other major anniversaries for the city’s “Sisters of Ceramics”: 120 years since the birth of Susie Cooper; and 75 years since the death of Charlotte Rhead.
Instantly recognised worldwide, the name Clarice Cliff is synonymous with The Potteries, Art Deco designs and, these days, antique collecting.
One of the world’s most famous, and most influential, ceramic artists of the twentieth century, most people with just a passing interest in ceramics and fine china can identify a piece of Clarice Cliff ware: even if they can’t always afford it.
But her own life story is equally dazzling and is one of a “local lass” from Stoke-on-Trent who not only “made good”, but also made the world (quite literally) a brighter and more colourful place.
It is a story that will soon be told in a new Sky Original movie, The Colour Room, starring Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgerton) and Matthew Goode (The Imitation Game) currently being shot in Stoke-on-Trent & The Potteries, and due to be screened later this year.
Born on January 20, 1899, in one of the Potteries famous six towns, Tunstall, Cliff started work in the pottery industry at the age of 13, but also studied art and sculpture at the Burslem School of Art in the evenings.
Ambitious and talented, in 1916 she made the unusual decision at the time to move to the factory of A.J. Wilkinson in Burslem to boost her career opportunities, where she impressed managers, including one of factory owners, Arthur Colley Austin Shorter.
Shorter – who shared a chemistry with her in their personal life as well as in the factory – nurtured her skills and ideas, and he also arranged for her to spend time at The Royal College of Art in London, and in Paris.
The rest, as they say, is history. From the earliest examples of her work, which had a hand-painted ‘Bizarre by Clarice Cliff’ mark, usually in a rust coloured paint, she went on to be joined by a group of equally enthusiastic “Bizarre girls”, who were taken-on by Cliff not only as staff but almost as a family of her own. Cliff died on 23 October 1972, and today her work still collected, valued and admired the world over.
Another of Stoke-on-Trent’s ‘sister of ceramics’ was Susie Cooper, born in Burslem, the “Mother Town of the Potteries”, on October 29, 1902, and who worked as a pottery designer in the city until the age of 84 before moving to the Isle of Man, where she continued to produce designs through to her death, in 1995.
She has been described as one of the most important and most prolific of all British ceramic designers. Her innovative work has been, and still is, amongst some of the most collectable in the world. And she is even credited as helping to bring the pottery industry out of the recession in the 1930s.
Her desire to design shapes as well as patterns saw her establish the ‘Susie Cooper Pottery’ in October 1929. Initially setting up at a pottery in Tunstall, she relocated to the Chelsea Works – a small pottery in Moorland Road, Burslem – which can still be visited to this day, and whose current occupants are nationally-known Moorland Pottery. She also worked with Wedgwood through the 1960s and 70s.
The immense and diverse range of patterns that she designed have left collectors with much to enjoy – from her early art deco hand painted ware from the Grays period and her rare and elusive early independent productions, through to her post-war bone china, to her work with Wedgwood.
Yet another English ceramics designer active in Stoke-on-Trent and The Potteries in the 1920s and the 1930s was Charlotte Rhead, who was born in Burslem in 1885, and died in 1947. The daughter of a respected pottery designer, she carved out a successful career of her own in the ceramics industry and remains an inspiration for future generations of women.
Lliving in Fenton, where Charlotte and her sister, Dollie, studied at Fenton School of Art, Charlotte started work at Wardle and Co, a pottery in the nearby town of Hanley – where her brother Frederick was art director prior to emigrating to the USA in 1902 and becoming a well-known pottery designer.
Charlotte did not stay at the firm long, but she developed an early flair as a tubeliner, which entailed creating fine and skilful raised decoration made from liquid clay, and she was soon recognised as one of the leading exponents of the skill.
She is perhaps best known for her association with or Burgess & Leigh of Middleport, where she worked as a designer after joining them in 1926, as a result of the economic downturn in the UK and the effects of the General Strike. The move was huge news within the industry at the time, with her new employer advertising Charlotte’s arrival in the Potteries Gazette.
While Rhead’s style was more traditional than that of her contemporaries Cliff and Cooper, she recruited an entire team which she trained to make her new Burgleigh ware designs that would carry her full name for the first time – and the name of Charlotte Rhead around the world.
For more information on Stoke-on-Trent as a destination, see www.visitstoke.co.uk
New Sky Original movie, The Colour Room, starring Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgerton) being shot in Stoke-on-Trent & The Potteries, and due to be screened later this year. Photo: Courtesy of Sky Originals