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Age of Jazz figures, by Clarice Cliff


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About the artwork

This toy-like and playful group of figures was designed by Clarice Cliff in 1930. They were possibly made to be displayed around a ‘wireless’, when listening to jazz and dance-band music. Jazz developed in the early twentieth century; its roots embedded in American popular culture. From about 1919 American jazz bands were visiting Britain and taking the country by storm. The contemporary perception of jazz was as novel, exotic and modern. It inspired new forms of decoration, including continental and British ceramics.

Clarice Cliff may well have taken her inspiration for these wonderful 'Age of Jazz' figures from some ceramic 'Jazz Musician' figures, produced by the Parisian manufacturers Robj in 1925. She is also known to have been inspired by designs published in the French monthly journal 'Mobilier et Décoration'. An issue of the journal published in 1929 showed some ceramic tree silhouettes by Robert Lallemant the French ceramic designer. Their method of production (pottery cut-outs) was very similar to that used by Clarice for her 'Age of Jazz' figures.

These figures are now considered to be very evocative of the 1930s, but they were not popular at the time and did not sell very well. They were difficult to manufacture because the flat cut-out shapes tended to warp in the kiln. This meant that there were a high proportion of unsaleable figures made, making them expensive to produce. They are now very rare.

Clarice Cliff is one of the most well known ceramics designers of the 1920s and 1930s. She rose through the ranks, firstly as a decorator, for A.J. Wilkinson Ltd in 1916 and became the company’s Art Director in 1916. She designed many stunning and innovative shapes and patterns at Wilkinson’s. She married the owner of the company, Colley Shorter, and after his death in 1963 she sold the firm and retired.

There were scores of women painters working in the ceramic industry in the 1920s and 1930s many of whom had lost their husbands, fathers and sons in the First World War. These women came from a variety of backgrounds and they had to struggle to succeed in a male dominated profession. Some women worked for just one pottery, others worked freelance, while others worked for more than one company. Some of the young girls and women who decorated the ceramics had learnt their skills either as apprentices or at local Art Schools and most received no recognition for their work.

What sets Clarice apart from most of the other painters and designers was the fact that she was highly regarded and recognised as a talented designer in her day and, as a testament to that, her name was used as a mark on her wares.