So universally admired are the forms of design and fashion lumped together, nowadays, as Art Deco that it is easy to forget a) that Bevis Hillier’s 1968 book Art Deco of the 20s and 30s was the first to popularise the term and b) that not everyone associated with the era was as fond of it as might be supposed. It was the variants of the style that found their way into the “Suburban” home that came in for most criticism.

Here is Ethel Mannin, in the course of a discussion on her own house and furnishings. (She had moved into Oak Cottage, Burghley Road, Wimbledon in 1929).

” The “hideous Modernism of the late Twenties’ home” was illustrated in a book entitled Interiors by Margaret and Alexander Potter; there is depicted an ugly square-tiled fireplace, a round table supporting a cocktail shaker, a standard lamp consisting of a stell tube surmounted by a square shade, a jazz-patterned rug, on the arm of a chair an ashtray fastened to a strip of leather, a completely hideous settee, a bowl suspended from the ceiling for a centre light, a two-coloured pouffe beside the settee, a dado round the ceiling, under the picture-rail, and studying the whole ensemble you know that the colour-scheme would have been orange-black. “Modernism” interpreted by Suburbia was quite horrible; the dance room at the house of the willow tree was not like that, but rather raffish – or designed to be – though there was the jazz-patterned rug, to be sure, and the pouffe, brought back like the Egyptian runners from some cruise or other. Standard lamps, too, were all the rage, and a cocktail shaker, of course, as essential a piece of equipment for the home as a cabinet gramophone and a collection of dance-records.”

To me, on the evidence above, there doesn’t exactly seem to be a continental divide between Raffishness and Suburbia.

Paul Tanqueray and Ethel Mannin, Wimbledon 1932 – Raffish or Suburban?

If there is one person who today is particularly associated with the arrival of Modernism in Suburbia it is Clarice Cliff. Thanks to “Flog It”, “Bargain Hunt” et al, Clarice Cliff is a better known name in this century than she was during her most creative period (from 1925 to 1935). But her range of ceramic tea sets and figurines did sell well at the time and are synonymous with Ribbon Development chic, of the type Mannin is somewhat dismissive towards. Her designs were inexpensive (then, not now) and perceived to be thoroughly Modern.

Furthermore, if the following anecdote is to be believed, the Cafe De Paris played its part.

“When they arrived at the Café de Paris Clarice was helped from the cab by a top-hatted doorman. She glanced back from Colley to the brightly lit portico of the building. Colley took her arm and steered her through the foyer where the warm aroma of tobacco and scent greeted them. Her fur wrap was taken and she went to the powder room where she adjusted her hair and make–up. Looking at herself in the mirror, she could still not really believe that this was her: Clarice Cliff in London with the boss of the factory she had joined as a lithographer in 1916. She took a small elaborate glass bottle from her purse, dabbed an oriental fragrance onto her wrists, and then headed back to the foyer. Colley beamed at her as she approached. Being much taller he always seemed so completely confident, and she was glad of his arm on hers as they entered the ballroom.

A mass of tables surrounded the dance floor, mostly with just a couple at each, and the hubbub of conversation and cigarette smoke filled the air. Many of the women were wearing the longer slinky dresses that had recently become fashionable; all the men were in evening dress. A stage with iridescent curtains was at the opposite end of the room. An attentive maitre d’ seated them at a ‘reserved’ table.”

(more, in this rather breathless, Barbara Cartland vein, at Clarice Cliff Age of Jazz Archive )

Anyhow, the upshot was that while watching the dancers strutting their stuff to the Harry Roy Orchestra and at the prompting of Mr. and Mrs. Havenhand ,who had joined Colley Shorter and Clarice, the idea for a set of figurines on a Night Club theme was conceived. These were to become the Age of Jazz pieces, as emblematic, if not as practical, as any in the Bizarre range that Cliff’s reputation is largely founded upon. (Bizarre was the name of the line and not adjectival, although some might beg to differ. It was pronounced  Bizz-Air apparently.)

Clarice Cliff (1899-1972)

Given that the inspiration is also said to have come from a Vanity Fair cover of 1926  (by A.H.Fish) and/or from Robert Lallemant’s 1929 Parisian collection, I think we can be a little skeptical about this tale but it has a certain charm to it.

Happy as I am to simply envisage Clarice Cliff at the Cafe De Paris, with Harry Roy providing the music,  the future Merle Oberon and Lady Docker as dance hostesses (as they would have been in 1930), plus whoever else, famous or infamous, was in the audience (was this the night that the Prince of Wales forewent his reserved table in deference to Ethel Waters?), I am also vaguely intrigued by yet another collision between the prohibitively exclusive and the mere popular that this anecdote illustrates.

Merle Oberon (Queenie Thompson in her Cafe De Paris days)

Putting, momentarily at least, issues of social class aside, we surely have here another illustration of the complicated relationship between English culture and modernity.”The English”, we are told, rejected Modernism tout court. The Punch lampoons of Jacob Epstein and the many pastiches of vers libre attest to this. However, away from the Eliot/Pound axis and Bloomsbury in general, the notion of High Modernism versus Mass Culture is hard to sustain.

I know I bark on about this with dismal regularity, but it remains a fact that Modernity and Modernism can be found in all strands of English culture in the twenties and thirties.  High and Low, Elite and Mass, Avant-Garde and Everyday inter-acted throughout the period.Dance bands that originally played only to the very rich, would shortly broadcast from Mayfair Hotels, thanks to the the BBC ,and became the pop stars of the day. Designs for the ballet and the theatre became home furnishings. Avant-Garde artists designed posters and illustrated books. Cross-fertilisation was the order of the day. I offer you the Shell Guides, written by John Betjeman and illustrated by John Piper as perfect examples.

Which brings us back to Clarice Cliff,  a working-class woman from Stoke-on-Trent,  who occasionally enjoyed a night out at the Cafe De Paris and who attended short courses at the Royal College of Art, picking up on Sonia Delaunay and Parisian visual design. These influences and experiences  she  then transformed  into decorative objects for the first-time buyers who populated Metroland and its provincial equivalents. As such, I see her as not untypical of artists of the period for whom Modernism and the Market were not quite the strangers that cultural historians would sometimes have us believe.

 

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