‘Who gets to decide what beauty is?’ How The Colour Room brings ceramicist Clarice Cliff’s story to life

·10-min read
 (Sky)
(Sky)

Almost a century on, the bright colours and bold geometric shapes of Clarice Cliff’s Art Deco pottery still feel strikingly modern. “You see these pieces and you see the amazing colour, vibrancy and life in them, and then you think: how did this woman in the 1920s live in Stoke, in this gritty, wonderful, industrial place, and create these pieces?” says screenwriter Claire Peate, whose new film The Colour Room grapples with that same question. Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor stars as the ceramic artist in the early years of her career, leading up to the launch of her pottery line, Bizarre.

Looking at Cliff’s work, and considering the era in which it flourished, you might assume that she was “from a William Morris background, a Bloomsbury set sort of person,” just as David Morrissey, who plays Cliff’s colleague, designer Fred Ridgeway, did before reading the script. In fact, the artist, whose name would eventually be emblazoned on millions of pieces sold all around the world, was a “working class rebel” who “figured out how to burst through every obstacle in her path,” as the film’s director Claire McCarthy puts it. “[She was] a pioneer at a time when women forging their way in the workplace was not even a thing, it was anathema.”

Born in Tunstall, Stoke on Trent, in 1899, Cliff started working at the potteries as a teenager, like so many Staffordshire women of her era; initially, she was employed as an apprentice enameller, before moving to another factory to become a lithographer. This was an unusual change of direction. Pottery workers, Dynevor explains, would usually have “a specific skill that they would learn when they were 13, whether that was being a paintress or a moulder or a lithographer,” and “would do [it] forever, for the rest of their lives.”

Phoebe Dynevor as Clarice Cliff (Sky)
Phoebe Dynevor as Clarice Cliff (Sky)

Mastering one skill meant maximising your earnings - imperative if, like Cliff, you had to earn your keep as part of a big family - yet she continued to swap one apprentice-level job for another. Her family may well have “viewed it as flitting jobs,” McCarthy notes, but she was really “cutting her teeth” in the ceramics business. “She’s learning every trick of the trade,” Dynevor says. “Coming from a working class background… it was like, ‘What are you doing?’ It was so out of the ordinary to keep jumping factories like Clarice did.”

Her decision to move to the A. J. Wilkinson factory in Burslem, another of the “six towns” that made up the Staffordshire Potteries, proved to be significant both professionally and personally. Here, she would eventually gain a position as an apprentice modeller, a role rarely taken by a woman, and work under the direction of Ridgeway and fellow designer John Butler (Morrissey’s character is, he notes, “an amalgamation” of the two men, and he “didn’t want to in any way portray him as a mentor or teacher, because she had her own genius.”).

She would also meet the factory’s co-owner Colley Shorter (played in The Colour Room by Matthew Goode), who recognised and supported her flair for design. The pair eventually embarked on a romantic affair (Shorter, 17 years her senior, was married with children) that became, as auctioneer and Cliff expert Will Farmer explains, “the worst kept secret in the world” of the Potteries.

Dynevor with Matthew Goode as Colley Shorter (Sky)
Dynevor with Matthew Goode as Colley Shorter (Sky)

Cliff didn’t leave behind letters or diaries, but in one of her only surviving quotes, she notes that “having a little fun at my work does not make me any less of an artist.” Peate, who grew up “next door to Stoke” in Derby, used that as one of her starting points. “I got the strong sense that she had a really good sense of humour,” she says. “Coming up against a lot of masculine aggression in business and industry, she deflected it…. She’s quite forceful but she does it with such a light touch.” It’s a balance that Dynevor’s performance, which couldn’t be further from her breakout turn as aristocratic debutante Daphne in Bridgerton, strikes well - even if, she admits, the Stoke accent was a struggle at first. “It’s not the easiest - it’s tough, especially being a northerner,” she says (Dynevor hails from Manchester - the vowel sounds are more different than you’d think).

Cliff’s breakthrough came in 1926, against the backdrop of the national coal strike, when “there was basically not enough physical material to make pots,” says Farmer, who acted as a historical advisor on The Colour Room, doing everything from grading replica ceramics on set to providing notes about authentic lighting (pottery workers, he says, “would use either the Stoke Sentinel [newspaper] or tracing paper to diffuse the light” pouring in from windows, “because if the light was too strong the girls couldn’t see what they were doing”). “Clarice knew that there was a huge stock of undecorated wares held in store, and they were sub-standard,” he explains.

A selection of Cliff teacups (Getty Images)
A selection of Cliff teacups (Getty Images)

Her idea was to cover up the imperfections on this remainder stock with bright Art Deco-style patterns, a far cry from the traditional fare - all Toby jugs and rose patterns - that the factory had previously relied on. After running the idea past Shorter, she was given just one paintress to help her decorate her new line in her own studio space, located in the adjoining pottery at Newport. Cliff worked “under the greatest of secrecy, because plagiarism was rife,” Farmer notes, and named her first line Bizarre. “I loved the fact that she spun straw into gold in many ways, by taking things that otherwise should have been trash and reworking them into usable, beautiful things for the common table,” McCarthy says. “And rather than it being this posh, bourgeois aesthetic tied to the end of Victoriana, it was [asking] ‘Well, who gets to decide what beauty is?’”

David Morrissey as Fred Ridgeway (Sky)
David Morrissey as Fred Ridgeway (Sky)

Shorter’s faith in Cliff’s work was so strong that not only did he task his head salesman Ewart Oakes with making the first Bizarre sales - he also lent him his Rolls Royce Silver Ghost to do so. Though Oakes “apparently didn’t get it [and] said ‘they’re not going to sell,’” Farmer says, he “decided that his first port of call would be a large department store in Oxford [...] because the buyer for the ceramics department was a woman.” When he arrived with a car full of Bizarre ware, she “bought the entire lot on the spot.”

Cliff had managed to make beautiful, contemporary pieces that women immediately responded to - she just needed to find a way to get the products in front of them. Working closely with Shorter, “a genius at marketing,” she “totally turned the machine on its head,” Farmer says, using colour printed leaflets (rare at the time) to reach her female customers. “She really became an influencer - she went out to women and spoke to them rather than women being told what was beautiful,” McCarthy adds.

Later tactics, commonplace now but pioneering then, included celebrity endorsements and collaborations with other designers. “Not only was she artistically brilliant, but also commercially,” Morrissey says. The film has plenty of fun with some of Cliff’s more daring marketing schemes, like Bazooka, a donkey made out of Bizarre ware, and the living window displays in department stores, where shoppers could watch her paintresses at work, dressed in their smocks and berets (“one of her big taglines was ‘ceramics made for women, by women,’” Farmer notes). According to McCarthy, the paintresses even “dressed up as teacups” at one point.

Cliff (Dynevor) with the Bizarre girls (and Bazooka...) (Sky)
Cliff (Dynevor) with the Bizarre girls (and Bazooka...) (Sky)

Cliff’s almost all-female gang of artists working out of the Newport studio called themselves the Bizarre girls, and were arguably among her best adverts. “It was always said in Stoke on Trent in the 20s and 30s that you could spot one of Miss Cliff’s girls walking down the street - they had an aura, whether it was fashion, hair, make-up or swagger,” Farmer says. As a boss, Cliff could be a taskmaster, but Peate also wanted to highlight how she fostered a new working environment in her factory.

“When we open the film, you’ve got a Victorian, male-dominated painting shop, the man is in charge and it’s quiet and dainty,” she says. “It’s about women taking over from the men in their own way - they are being industrious, but they’re having a really good time while they’re doing it… I think if you were painting rosebuds in the main factory, and you were seeing what was happening in the Newport factory, you’d want to [work] for them.”

Morrissey didn’t want to portray Rigeway as a straightforward mentor (Sky)
Morrissey didn’t want to portray Rigeway as a straightforward mentor (Sky)

To get an idea of the vast scale of Cliff’s success, you just have to look at the feverish press coverage she inspired. “During her key years, which are 1927 to 1936, Clarice featured in over 360 periodicals, magazine and newspaper articles about her and her work,” Farmer says. “You compare that to her closest competitor Susie Cooper, who had less than 30 in the same period.” She was eventually appointed artistic director of both Wilkinson factories; at her peak, they were turning over around 18,000 pieces per week, ready to be shipped across the country and across the Commonwealth, all marked with Cliff’s name.

There was a sense of mutual respect between Cliff and Cooper (who, Farmer reveals, once phoned up her rival to tell her that one of the Bizarre girls had arrived at her pottery for an interview - Cliff told Cooper to send her straight back) but her success certainly inspired jealousy in some of her male peers. “Some people in the industry really hated her, because she was doing such scrappy, messy, wonderful pieces,” Peate says. “They were all about neat, gilded, smart [work], bringing the Potteries up, so she went against everything they valued.” That didn’t stop them “trying to jump on her coat tails” with similar styles, Farmer says, once it became clear just how lucrative Cliff-esque designs could be.

Shorter and Cliff eventually married following his wife’s death (Sky)
Shorter and Cliff eventually married following his wife’s death (Sky)

Their criticism most likely took a personal turn. “I have no doubt that there were lots of conversations behind hands,” Farmer says of her relationship with Colley. Indeed, Peate, McCarthy and their producers “talked long and hard about” how to tackle their romance on-screen, the screenwriter says. “It’s really tricky. It’s an affair, he was married and had kids. Should we have a protagonist who does that? And then we thought… it’s not black and white, she’s a tricky, three-dimensional character and this is part of that. We should see her with all her flaws.” McCarthy adds that the pair were “kindred spirits professionally, and that grew into something much more abiding, and they ended up spending the rest of their lives together.” Shorter’s wife died in 1940 and he and Cliff married in secret less than a year later which, as Farmer notes, was pretty scandalous. “It wasn’t the done thing - you should have been a widow for 12 months,” he says.

Cliff stepped back from designing in the 40s, when decorating pottery was banned under wartime regulations, and it wasn’t until after her death in 1972 that she was finally “recognised and hailed... as a groundbreaker in 20th century design,” Farmer says. When he started collecting her work in the 80s, “we didn’t know pattern names… you could find patterns that nobody had ever seen.” The market boomed in the late 90s, coinciding with her centenary, and has, he explains, “got stronger and stronger,” although the market has “done a ‘divide and separate.’ The lesser wares have become very affordable. You could start a collection of Clarice with £10 in your pocket… but you go to the other end of the spectrum now and there are people who regularly part with between £10,000 and £30,000 for a single piece.”

He hopes that The Colour Room “will be the catalyst for a whole new generation of people” to discover Cliff’s life and work - and so do its stars. “I do think if she’d been a man, we might know more about her in the general populace than we do,” Morrissey says, adding: “I’m hoping the film will reintroduce her - and give her the status she needs.”

The Colour Room is in cinemas and available on Sky Cinema and NOW from November 12

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