Tuesday, 13 September 2005

Collect Clarice Cliff wall masks - if you can afford them

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Lot 191

We shouldn't have grumbled here last week about spiralling prices for examples of Clarice Cliff's Bizarre pottery, having done so we seem to be surrounded by the stuff.

First, we watched as one "lucky" buyer handed over a 100 notes at a North Wales car boot sale for one of Clarice's large geometric patterned jugs that he was convinced was worth five times the amount.

He might have been right, although we had a sneaky suspicion it could have been a fake.

Then, on a trip into town, we saw the banners festooned from the front of Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery promoting their latest exhibition.

Aptly, since it is all about the Art Deco and the Age of Jazz, the banners are decorated with Clarice's flat angular figure groups by the same name showing a dance band and dancers in action.

The exhibition runs until October 30, giving us plenty of time to go back and appreciate what we're told is one of the best exhibitions to have been mounted at the Walker this year.

Finally, North Wales auctioneer David Rogers Jones contacted us to tell us about a single-owner collection of Clarice's crocks that had been consigned for one of his sales. The results are an interesting barometer of how prices are faring currently. Surely it can only be a matter of time ...

Interestingly, the collection for sale at Rogers Jones included an example of one of the handful of face masks modelled by Clarice - wall medallions as the Newport Pottery factory called them - introduced in 1933.

Marlene, modelled after film star Marlene Dietrich, has an ornate headdress decorated in red, yellow and brown, while the others include Flora, who has an Oriental face and hair garlanded with flowers; Marilyn wears a beret; Chahar is the name given to another with an elaborate Egyptian headdress and a pair of baby masks called Jack and Jill wear only smiles beneath their small tufts of hair.

No less frivolous than her Bizarre pottery, these wall masks were popular when they were first made and Marlene and Flora remained in production until well into the late 1930s.

Flora was the most popular of all and two sizes were produced painted in either strong or soft colours to suit the customer's decor and taste.

The masks are becoming scarcer today, but interestingly, another example of Marlene turned up in the Kent auction house a fortnight ago with an estimate of £300 to 400. She failed to sell. The Rogers Jones example went for £220, presumably because of a more reasonable reserve.

Clearly the collector who was liquidating at Rogers Jones was also a lover of ceramic wall masks because the consignment also included a charming group by lesser potters that will sell for a fraction of the prices Clarice commands.

The pictures illustrated here showed just a few. My favourites are the pair of miniature face masks by John Beswick and a Czechoslovakian mask whose subject has orange hair!

Face masks have a long history in art and they make a rich source for the collector. Among the most accessible are probably those brought back from Africa when the continent was opened up by missionaries in the 19th century.

Intrepid tourists followed quickly after and it is rare to find a country house contents sale that does not include a section devoted to the weird and wonderful souvenirs shipped home by the trunk load from some safari in a far-off land.

It should be no surprise to learn that such tribal artefacts were major influence on the design elements that make up Art Deco and nowhere is this better realised that in the ceramic face masks of the Twenties and Thirties.

Interestingly, Clarice Cliff was involved in the production of a truly grotesque face mask unlike anything being made in the Staffordshire Potteries when it appeared in 1929.

Traditional "Clarice Cliff Bizarre" backstamp

It was designed by Ron Birks, Clarice's apprentice at the Newport Pottery, and some examples - now exceedingly rare - are marked with his 'RB' monogram. Others have the traditional "Clarice Cliff Bizarre" backstamp, although Birks was paid a small royalty for each one sold.

Susie Cooper, another of the celebrated Pottery Ladies, also designed face masks, notably one modelled as a judge complete with wig and another of a Chinaman.

A particularly prolific mask maker was Myott Son & Co. whose Alexander Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent was founded in the early 1800s.

After previously concentrating on a range of traditional tableware, the firm was quick to climb on to the Art Deco bandwagon and introduced a large range of hand-painted ware including vases, jugs and wall pockets.

A further turning point in their fortunes came in the 1940s following a trading agreement with the Austrian company Goldscheider which had an extensive and highly successful range of stylish ceramic figures and face masks.

Interestingly, it was Myott who were commissioned to produce the white, minimalist tableware the Cunard Line, examples of which are marked 'Cunard Myott Staffordshire England'.

A similar but less well documented route was taken by the company J.H. Cope and Co, China manufacturer at the Wellington Works in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent.

Originally in partnership with another manufacturer nearby, Cope produced so-called Wellington China until it went out of business in 1946.

Before then, however, the decorative department made a small number of mass-produced yet stylish and cheerful face masks which continue to be popular today.

Like those from Myott, they change hands for little money when compared to Cliff and Cooper.

What to watch for

As with all "modern" ceramics, fakes, forgeries and (honest) reproductions can be a major issue for collectors, particularly if you lack the knowledge to tell the difference between old and new.

In recent years there was a revival in interest in ceramic face masks and high street shops were full of them, particularly a range modelled as harlequins.

Best advice is to buy from reputable sources, where a guarantee is freely given and replacement offered if there's a problem.

See a must-have mask and yearn to add it to your collection at your peril. Treat all examples as questionable, particularly if they appear to be too good to be true.

Make the piece prove its age to you. Is its condition too good for its apparent years?

Look at the unglazed rim at the rear of the piece. Is it too white, indicating that it's fresh from the maker?

Check out the glazing - expect to see some crazing, but too much of it in a uniform pattern is doubtful.

Look carefully at the colours. Are they strong and uniform, or streaky and thin? The latter in either case should ring alarm bells.

Best of all, try to put a good old piece alongside a dud - learning to spot the difference is a lesson you'll never forget.

Pictures show, top: A Clarice Cliff Newport Pottery Marlene face mask. Sold for £220 Lot 169 - A Beswick (?) pottery lady face mask, green hat and green spotted yellow cravat, no 449 to the base, 13 ins long. Sold for £145 Lot 162 A pair of Beswick pottery miniature face masks and two miniature Cope & Co face masks. Sold for £180 Lot 168 - A large Beswick Art Deco lady face mask with ringlets, flowers and a necklace, 12 ins high. Sold for £160

Lot 169Lot 162Lot 168

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