Jan and Maurice Mead with their dog Rufus in front of their collection of Clarice Cliff pottery.

Jan and Maurice Mead with their dog Rufus in front of their collection of Clarice Cliff pottery. Photo: Luis Ascui

English potter Clarice Cliff is a household name when it comes to ceramics from the 1920s and 30s. 

Her brightly coloured teapots, tea sets, vases and bowls, can be easily identified from a distance. The vivid, hand-painted ceramics, with highly stylised art-deco forms, has been popular for many years. The names given to each collection, such as 'Bizarre', are as fantastical as each bold brushstroke.

Jan and Maurice Mead became aware of Cliff’s distinctive signature 25 years ago. 

A Clarice Cliff 'Bizarre' conical footed bowl. Sold this year for $4920.

A Clarice Cliff 'Bizarre' conical footed bowl. Sold this year for $4920.

Their dresser is filled with Clarice Cliff’s ceramics. Each shelf represents a collection, including her 'Harvest' series depicting sheaves of wheat. There’s also a butter dish in the mix, and a beautifully painted teapot, one of the most prized items in the couple’s collection. 

‘‘We sold a dining table at auction and with the proceeds, we bought this teapot,’’ says Jan. ‘‘From memory, it was about $1600.’’ 

Also precious is their dinner plate, decorated with stylised art-nouveau tree forms in a range of rich blues, estimated to now be worth more than $1000. However, Jan and Maurice’s first piece of Clarice Cliff pottery was considerably less expensive. 

This Clarice Cliff 'Fantasque' vase in a 'Honolulu' pattern, sold for $1920.

This Clarice Cliff 'Fantasque' vase in a 'Honolulu' pattern, sold for $1920.

They were visiting Castlemaine in Central Victoria, when they spotted a 10-centimetre high, brightly coloured vase in the window of a junk shop. ‘‘A friend of ours had a large collection of Clarence Cliff, so we knew that we were looking at the real thing,’’ says Maurice. 

But with a price tag of $90, it was considered an odd find in a junk shop. With raised eyebrows at the price tag, they headed back to Melbourne, only to do a U-turn and return for the vase. 

‘‘I think that was the point of being hooked,’’ says Maurice. But rather than collecting multiples of each design, they prefer to collect only one of each. Even the less commercial designs are treasured. For example, an angular teacup had a short life span in Cliff’s catalogues as the sharp spikes in the surface caused grazing on staff hands.

Clarice Cliff 'Fantasque' vase in a 'Red Sunrise' pattern. Sold this year for $2040

Clarice Cliff 'Fantasque' vase in a 'Red Sunrise' pattern. Sold this year for $2040 Photo: richardhughes@fairfaxmedia.com.a

Over time Jan and Maurice found other Clarice Cliff pieces in antique stores. Their children also appreciated their passion, buying pieces for birthdays and special occasions. 

Cliff’s 'Chickpot’, a coco mug for children, is relatively subdued in appearance, with striations of cream and pale mustard.

‘‘I still remember placing the Chickpot in the middle of a picnic rug at the Botanical Gardens. We both couldn’t take our eyes off it,’’ says Jan. 

Most of the couple’s collection is just for display, though some of the vases and larger jugs are used for flowers. But it’s the pleasure of walking past it all each day that can’t be valued. 

‘‘We love the colour, the forms and that whole period of design,’’ says Maurice, who together with Jan, has a fine eye for aesthetics, Maurice being a former fashion photographer and Jan a model. 

Modest reserves

Andrew Shapiro Auctioneers in Sydney and Melbourne have been selling the work of Clarice Cliff for many years. Shapiro recently included a number of pieces with relatively modest reserves at auction. A tea set with an upper estimate of $350 and a cheese cover platter expected to fetch $400. But there was also a coffee set, with a range set between $1200 and $1800.

‘‘Many of these pieces are the ‘entrance’ level for Clarice Cliff. But for certain designs, even a single plate can fetch up to $2000,’’ says Shapiro. 

The ‘Shark’s Tooth’ pattern, from the early 1920s is highly sought after by collectors, as are some of the ceramics with the brush strokes of artists from the Bloomsbury Group, who worked on certain Clarice Cliff designs.

‘‘Duncan Grant’s work is extremely rare,’’ adds Shapiro, who sold a dinner set from Grant for $6000 in 2008. Other coveted Cliff designs include ‘‘Forest Glen’’, as well as ‘Branches and Squares’, with a dinner plate from the latter estimated to be worth $1,200.

‘‘The bright geometric patterns, such as ‘Lightning’ from the early 1920s are some of the most valuable,’’ says Shapiro. Like many collectables, that have their moment in the sun, Clarice Cliff’s time, according to Shapiro, was the late 1990s and the early 2000s.

‘‘The big collectors have since pulled out of this market. And it has now settled back down. Australia, in particular, still has a strong following for Clarice Cliff’’. 

Deco DownUnder (decodownunder.com), a mail-order business established by George and Susan Walter 20 years ago, specialises in Clarice Cliff and others ceramicists, such as William Ricketts and John Perceval.

The Walters still have a ‘long cup’, a jug-like piece by Ricketts from the 1920s with an indigenous portrait at the front of the jug and locks of hair on the other. A John Perceval figurine, fashioned on one of the artist’s daughters, has also passed through their hands, fetching $20,000 at another auction ten years ago. 

One of Cliff’s conical angular rose bowls from the early 1930s has a price tag of $10,000 plus GST at Deco DownUnder. Her 'Lucerne' patterned ceramics are also highly coveted, featuring Swiss castles with turrets. 

‘‘It’s a good time to buy Clarice Cliff. The prices were higher 10 years ago, but they’ve been creeping up over the past few years,’’ says George Walter, who is finding it more difficult to source Cliff’s work.

Collectors such as Jan and Maurice wouldn’t think of parting with any of their Clarice Cliff pieces. The Mead’s haven’t bought Cliff for the past 10 years, but still fondly recall the story behind each piece.

‘‘Maurice was delighted when he opened a parcel from London for one birthday,’’ Jan says. 

‘‘Two candle holders. You should have see the expression on his face.’’