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Rebel with a vase: how to build a ceramics collection

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I am a big Clarice Cliff fan and I am hoping to expand my collection. Any tips?

I am by no means an expert on ceramics, yet I am a true devotee. In fact, I have something of an addiction: I’m constantly scouring eBay and online auctions for pieces, and when I’m in my happiest place, a junk shop, like a rat up a drainpipe I’m striding past big bits of furniture, dead set on a good rifle through all the dusty vases and pots, plates and jugs I can dig out.

Why is this? Well, I take pleasure from my ceramics on a daily basis. A bud vase on a mantelpiece, a jug brought out for milk at breakfast, a dish for soap. The bits I buy, I use.

Naturally, some pieces are more useful than others, and some just stand around and look good. A Staffordshire figure with rosy cheeks and a pencil moustache that guards the vegetables on the worktop in our kitchen, for example, doesn’t actually offer any service, but certainly adds a sprinkle of sprightly charm to the otherwise rustic kitchen scene.

I buy for looks. This means that occasionally I might come across something a bit special; I’ll cave, buy, and then keep the item on a high shelf, just to stare at. It also means that a chipped junk-shop plate will provide just as much of a thrill, if I love the way it looks.

A side note: thinking practically, we break a lot of stuff. There is not a week that goes by without at least one casualty and pointy shards being carried off to the graveyard cupboard. My attitude is: one should look after one’s things, but one can’t be precious. It’s only stuff, and if I really am nervous about breaking a particular piece, I will banish it to a high shelf. Unless it’s too big for a high shelf.

Majolica turquoise eight-well oyster plate by George Jones, c1874

Conical sugar sifter by Clarice Cliff, c1930s
Conical sugar sifter by Clarice Cliff, c1930s

Earlier this year I clumsily walked into the 1970s ceramic camel we employed as a drinks table between armchairs in our sitting room: its head came clean off. Imagine the ensuing depression!

Now, to Clarice Cliff. Cliff is known as one of the most influential ceramic artists of the 20th century; her work is collected and prized the world over. I have to be honest: it does nothing for me. It’s down to all that navy blue and bright orange, I’m afraid — not a preferred colour combination. But don’t let me put you off.

Before expanding your collection, I advise doing some good research. Christie’s, for example, has an excellent online collecting guide, as does the Antiques Trade Gazette. According to the Gazette, “One reason why Clarice Cliff pottery has been so attractive to collectors is that there is enough of it around to make it available to a large collecting base but not so much as to render it ubiquitous.”

There is even a Clarice Cliff Collectors Club, which would be worth investigating. From what I have read, I gather that shapes are as important as decoration, which is why the conical form of Cliff’s sugar sifters makes them highly collectible. Lancashire’s Parbold Antiques is currently selling a brightly painted and very well-preserved sifter for £1,200.

Mid-century Italian agateware urns
Mid-century Italian agateware urns

What am I into? A bit of a mixture, really. I am a fan of majolica, particularly when it comes to jugs, plates and vases decorated with shells and classical motifs. Martha Stewart’s guide to collecting majolica is very useful. It notes: “English-made pieces manufactured by Wedgwood, Minton, and George Jones from 1850 to 1900 — [are] wildly collectible in the United States and Britain.”

I’m currently lusting after a George Jones eight-well oyster plate made circa 1874, available via 1stdibs and a dealer in North Carolina for $2,895.

We break a lot of stuff. There is not a week that goes by without one casualty and pointy shards being carried off to the graveyard cupboard

I like lustreware and creamware, pearlware and mochaware. I’ve got a thing for agateware at the moment, a type of pottery created from the mixing of two contrasting coloured clays, producing a marble effect. I came across a magnificent pair of mid 20th-century Italian yellow agateware urns recently, also on 1stdibs, for $4,250.

I often look to specialist dealers, even if I’m only window shopping. John Howard has a very good and efficient website, full of wonderful, rare and sometimes rather unusual things, such as a set of late 18th-century agateware balls. (I absolutely do not need these, but I really want them.)

I find that the purity of creamware is much appreciated as a contrast to all this colour and pattern: John Howard is also selling a very elegant set of 12 shell-edged plates made by Wedgwood, along with a gasp-inducing pair of creamware vases with lion head masks, also by Wedgwood.

Wedgwood creamware shell-edged plates
Wedgwood creamware shell-edged plates, late 18th century

An impressive pair of Wedgwood creamware pottery vases with lion head masks circa 1765
Wedgwood creamware vases with lion head masks, c1765

So, if you’re serious about adding to your collection, do your research and enjoy the hunt. On the other hand, if you’re not too fussed about age or provenance or rarity, choose the things that aesthetically speak to you and you can’t live without.

As for our decapitated camel: fear not, I found a local restorer a few
weeks ago, and he is currently having his head safely reattached by an expert. Banishment to a quiet corner will be required when he arrives
home. His martini-swilling days are long behind him.

If you have a question for Luke about design and stylish living, email him at lukeedward.hall@ft.com. Follow him on Instagram @lukeedwardhall

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