Cliff tops for ceramic prices
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
Last week, the phone rang at Treasures Irish Art in Athlone. Antique dealer Louis Walsh picked up the call.
"I've got an old tea set that you might be interested in," said the woman at the other end of the line. "I think it's by Clarence Cliff."
The antique dealer cleared his throat. "Do you think you might mean Clarice Cliff?"
The name Clarice Cliff is enough to make a dealer's heart beat faster. Her joyously patterned hand-painted ceramics were made in England in the early 20th century and their prices can reach well into the thousands.
At the upper end of the scale, the British antique dealer Andrew Muir is currently advertising an Appliqué Lucerne vase (c.1930) for £5,500 (€6,282). At the lower end, any piece in good condition is worth at least €100. "Put it this way," says Walsh. "You can buy a nice Victorian trio of teacup, plate and saucer for €15. A similar trio by Clarice Cliff will cost €150."
But when his mystery caller brought her pieces of pottery into the shop, the tea set was incomplete and one of the cups was cracked. The rest of the set was saleable, but less valuable than its owner had hoped.
"I think she was disappointed," Walsh explains. "She'd inherited the pieces from an aunt and they'd been kept in a glass cabinet. Then she saw something about Clarice Cliff on the television and thought they'd be worth a fortune." More often, the people who bring in stray pieces of Clarice Cliff tableware are pleasantly surprised to find that the little jug that they nearly gave to a car boot sale is worth upwards of €100.
Sell a genuine piece of Clarice Cliff at a car boot sale and you'll be kicking yourself. Buy one and you'll be taking a risk. More than likely, it's a fake. "Most people who sell Clarice Cliff would recognise a repro at a distance, but the inexperienced person is always making mistakes," says Walsh. Most genuine pieces are marked with the pattern name alongside the signature and a factory mark. But so too are the fakes.
One of the ways you can tell a modern reproduction is by the snow white background behind the painted surface. Clarice Cliff's work was painted over a honey-coloured glaze. Another way of telling is to look at the base for signs of wear. "It's hard to fake patina," Walsh says.
Once you've separated the genuine from the false, it's hard not to fall in love with Clarice Cliff (1899-1972). The pieces are so brave and adventurous in their Art Deco forms as well as their decoration. Cliff was a successful female designer in a generation when women weren't expected to have careers (there was no problem with them having jobs) but she didn't fall into the trap of taking herself too seriously. "Having a little fun at my work does not make me less of an artist," she once said. "And people who appreciate truly beautiful and original creations in pottery are not frightened by innocent tomfoolery."
Then there's a rags-to-riches love story. Cliff was born to a working class family in Stoke-on-Trent, the heart of English ceramic production. She began as an apprentice potter and studied at the local school of art in the evening. By 1916 she was working at the factory of AJ Wilkinson where she came to the attention of one of the factory owners, Colley Shorter. A long, clandestine and creative relationship followed, but the couple didn't marry until 1940, when Shorter's wife died.
The story goes that Cliff was given a studio at the adjoining Newport Pottery. Here, she decorated flawed examples of the factory's plain white ware in freehand patterns and bright colours, covering the imperfections with painted triangles which she termed "Bizarre". The name stuck and "Bizarre" came to refer to her entire range. By the 1930s, the decorators who executed her designs were engagingly known as the "Bizarre girls" (there were also a couple of boys).
In 1928 she produced what has become her most famous pattern, Crocus. It was a simple floral design, obviously hand painted, with visible brush strokes and a range of vibrant colour ways. The work was commercially successful and sold through mainstream London shops. "They thought that it wasn't going to sell, but it did," Walsh explains. "It was wonderful - vibrant, geometric, jazzy. People liked it then and they like it now."
Cliff not only designed the surface decoration, she also created the forms, which range from conventional vases to angular Art Deco shapes. Collectors prize rarity in shape as well as pattern and the condition of the piece has a direct bearing on the price. Tea sets and jugs, not particularly expensive at the time they were made, tended to get used and damaged. Vases and decorative items had a better chance of survival.
"We always have some in the shop but it sells quickly," says Walsh, who has sent his son off to England to see if he can pick up some more Clarice Cliff pieces for the Dublin National Antiques, Art & Vintage Fair, which runs at the Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, Co Dublin, this Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 6pm on both days. Admission is €5.
See hibernianantiquefairs.com, treasuresirishart.com and andrew-muir.com.
In the salerooms
Brooches are back on the catwalk and rapidly filtering down to the high street, although more likely to be worn on a collar or cuff, or even in pairs, than on the traditional lapel.
Nobody did brooches better than the Victorians and there's still great value to be had in the auction rooms. O'Reilly's next auction of Fine Jewellery, Watches and Silver includes an antique Victorian ruby, sapphire and diamond brooch in the shape of a butterfly (est €500 to €600) and a floral antique brooch with old cut diamonds centred on an emerald (est €1,800 to €2,200).
There are also several attractive brooches with low estimates: a simple peridot and seed pearl brooch (est €80 to €100); an antique gold, sapphire and seed pearl bar brooch (est €80 to €120); and a large cameo brooch of a stately lady (est €100 to €150). The auction takes place on Wednesday at 1pm with full details on oreillysfineart.com.
The Georgians were better at design than sanitation and bad smells were an inescapable feature of city life. The poor simply endured it, the rich carried a vinaigrette to mask the smell.
These small decorative containers had hinged lids that opened to reveal a pierced grid, also hinged. Under the grid was a small sponge, soaked in aromatic substances dissolved in vinegar (hence the name vinaigrette).
A George IV citrine and turquoise vinaigrette (c. 1825-35) (est €800 to €1,000) is up for sale at Adam's forthcoming auction of Fine Jewellery & Watches. The lid is a faceted citrine and the thumbpiece is set with three oval cabochon-cut turquoises.
Other interesting historical pieces in the sale include a 19th century pendant/locket (est €1,500 to €2,500) with a miniature portrait of a lady (below) within a surround of turquoise cabochons.
A glazed locket compartment on the reverse contains braided hairwork and, instead of a chain, the piece hangs from a double braid of hair interspersed with gold links. It's testimony to the Victorian belief that an element of the spirit remained in human hair. The auction takes place on Tuesday at 6pm with full details on adams.ie.
ANTIQUE AND COLLECTOR'S FAIRS
The first Dublin National Antiques, Art & Vintage Fair takes place tomorrow and Sunday at the Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, Co Dublin. This is Hibernian Antique Fairs' largest Dublin venture yet and promises 70 antique shops, art galleries and vintage dealers.
The fair runs from 11am to 6pm on both days and admission is €5. For further details, email email@example.com.
Enthusiasts will also be able to take in the Antiques and Vintage Fair that runs at the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire, on Sunday from 11am to 6pm. More than 40 traders from Ireland and the UK will be taking part in the fair, which will include a collection of 20th century designer costume jewellery. For more information, call 087 2670607.