A Look at the Life and Work of Cliff Brown of Edwardian Elegance
By Zoe Handy
Cliff with his wife Brenda at one of the many shows they attended together.
The British artisan miniaturist Cliff Brown traded as Edwardian Elegance, making fine 1:12 scale dolls’ house furniture for 26 years from 1993 to 2019.
I bought furniture from Cliff at several of the Miniatura dolls’ house fairs held at the Birmingham NEC, when I was furnishing my 1:12 scale Edwardian town house by Sid Cooke in the 1990s and 2000s. However, just recently, I realised that there was very little information available about Cliff and his work, either online or elsewhere and I decided I needed to rectify that.
Furniture from the Edwardian Elegance 'Classic' range in the bedroom of my Sid Cooke Edwardian town house - the washstand is not by Edwardian Elegance.
Luckily, I was able to get in touch with Cliff by telephone and it soon became clear why he has no on-line presence - at the age of 88, he doesn’t own a computer of any sort and has no intention yet of ever doing so!
Cliff was delighted when I explained that I would like to write an online magazine article about him and his work as a miniature artisan and we soon agreed that the best way for me to gather the information I needed for this would be to visit him. And so I arrived at his beautiful Edwardian town house in Wilmslow, Cheshire on a rare sunny morning in January. It was no great surprise to be greeted and treated thereafter with the utmost hospitality, since Cliff does seem to be universally regarded by those I have spoken to as a true gentleman of unfailing courteousness.
Settling down with a cup of coffee, Cliff filled me in on some details about his life and his work:
Cliff Brown - full name John Cliff Brown - was born on the 27th of May, 1931 in Chorley, Alderly Edge, Cheshire, England. Sadly, his father died when he was just five years old and he and his mother went to live with his maternal grandparents on their farm in Alderley Edge.
The farm wasn’t far from Woodford Aerodrome, an airfield and aircraft factory opened by Avro shortly after the first world war. Seeing the air traffic from Woodford overhead on a daily basis, Cliff developed a keen interest in aircraft and by the age of about nine he had begun to build his own scale model aeroplanes. It was through this hobby, which he continued to pursue up until he was married at the age of 20 and then resumed again in later life, that Cliff developed many of the woodworking skills he would later put to use in his miniature work.
Eventually Cliff ended up designing the model aircraft he built too and he has kept a meticulous record of every one of the 95 model aircraft he has designed and/or built over the course of his lifetime.
Academically, Cliff did very well at school, winning a scholarship to the local Grammar School in Macclesfield which he attended from 1942-1947.
Early Life and Career
Because of his interest in aircraft, Cliff would have liked to have joined the aircraft industry after leaving school, however, such a career choice was more or less vetoed by his family, which was part of a farming community with a deep resentment of the local AVRO factory and the RAF because of the inevitable loss of local farm labour to that more lucrative employment.
And so Cliff began his working life in one of the local textile mills in Macclesfield, Cheshire where, in his own words, he “took to it like a duck to water”.
Cliff did, however, get to spend some time with the RAF as he served his National Service with them from 1951-52. Unlike some, however, he didn’t get to travel the world during this time as he was posted to RAF Wilmslow - just a few miles from home! Though Cliff did pass the exams to train as a fighter pilot there, at that time in his life he didn’t want to sign up for the required four year stint and so he remained on the ground. However, as Cliff says, having married his first wife Dorothy in 1951, it did at least mean he was able to get home regularly!
Career in the Textile Industry
After his National Service, Cliff went on to have a very long and successful career in the textile industry, working as a Jacquard Fabric Designer for a company specialising in high quality fabrics for high-end buyers and becoming very involved in training.
By 1982 however, after working his way up to the position of Head Designer, the company Cliff had worked for for 34 years suffered from the general economic downturn in the UK textile industry and he was made redundant when the company folded. Fortunately, being well regarded in the industry, Cliff was immediately headhunted to be Head Designer with another company. However, such was the state of the industry at that time, it was only eleven years later that that company floundered too and Cliff found himself being made redundant for a second time in 1993. Though Cliff continued to be involved in the textile industry for a while thereafter, via freelance consultancy and designing, at this point he decided that an entirely different second career was called for.
Meanwhile, in his homelife, Cliff and his wife moved to Wilmslow in 1956 and went on to have two children (Denise and John).
Demonstrating that he has many strings to his bow, from about the mid 60s to the early 70s, Cliff turned his talents to oil painting in his spare time, following a request from his wife to paint something in oils for their living room wall. Cliff duly obliged and then clearly caught the bug because he went on to create a good number of paintings, initially copies of other paintings, but later producing his own original works, even ending up with one-man exhibitions in two galleries. Cliff kept a record of the work he produced during that time, a small sample of which can be seen below.
The only miniature paintings Cliff produced, however, were to decorate the walls of the room boxes used to display his furniture on the Edwardian Elegance show stand. Those pictures were never officially for sale, however, a couple of customers did enquire and were lucky enough to purchase them. Dolls' Houses Past and Present member Keri Burbidge tells me that she asked Cliff if she could buy one and when he sent her several for perusal, she and two friends each took one - as Keri says, "Precious minis indeed".
Returning to Cliff's homelife, sadly, after 25 years of marriage, Cliff’s first wife passed away at rather a young age and in 1977, Cliff married his second wife Brenda who also had been widowed and had two children from her first marriage (Caroline and Deborah). The families merged together happily and in 1978 Cliff and Brenda bought the beautiful Edwardian town house in Wilmslow where Cliff still lives. Cliff recalls that the house was rather dilapidated when they bought it, and it took them quite a few years to restore it to its former glory.
The Switch into Dolls’ House Miniatures
In about 1982/83, Cliff and Brenda went on holiday to the USA. While they were there, Brenda fell in love with an American dolls’ house kit, however, it was too heavy to bring back to the UK with them. Undaunted, they took a photo of the illustration on the box and bought the plans instead, When they got home, Cliff built the house himself, with some fairly extensive modifications as requested by Brenda: typically for an American dolls' house, the kit house was open at the back and Cliff modified it so that not only did it have a back but it opened on three sides. Brenda went on to create, decorate and furnish the house in a typically New England style and although much of the furniture was bought elsewere, Cliff did make one or two pieces for it himself, including a blanket box, a chest of drawers and a table.
Part of the interior of a large dolls' house built by Cliff for his wife in the 1980s from the plans for an American kit house.
This proved to be the start of Brenda’s, and by extension Cliff’s, introduction into the world of miniatures, which eventually lead to the inception of Edwardian Elegance in 1993 when Cliff was made redundant for the second time.
At that time, the majority of miniature makers were catering for the demand for Victorian period furniture, and Cliff was convinced there was a gap in the market for something different. With a fondness for the elegant furniture of the Edwardian era, having been "sort of brought up with it", there seemed to be a natural fit.
Using a Harrods Edwardian furniture catalogue for inspiration, Cliff started by making just a few pieces from that era, and during 1993/94 he and Brenda took stands at three very small local fairs. Cliff recalls that they didn’t actually sell any of the furniture at these fairs, which were general craft fairs and not specifically for miniatures, however, they did receive lots of very positive feedback.
The Edwardian Harrods catalogue of full-size furniture, used by Cliff as inspiration for his miniature pieces.
In 1994, encouraged by this positive feedback, Cliff applied for and was accepted onto the Enterprise Allowance Scheme - a Government scheme that gave a guaranteed income of £50 per week for a few months and provided business advice to unemployed people who set up their own business. He and Brenda continue to attend local fairs with his work and also began to venture further afield. Cliff’s hunch about the Edwardian era soon proved to be correct as the business began to take off and flourish.
The Edwardian Elegance stand in the early years.
Cliff tells me that they initially placed one or two adverts in a couple of UK dolls’ house magazines, including International Dolls' House News, but before long they were taking enough orders from the shows to keep him very busy, so advertising wasn’t something they continued with. Having kept meticulous records of every miniature he made and of every fair attended, including the dates and details of the day's takings for each, Cliff could tell me that during the 26 years that it traded, Edwardian Elegance went on to attend 92 shows and that he made 3523 individual pieces of furniture for the venture, many being special commissons. All of this was only done by spending many long hours in his workshop!
From the outset, Cliff determined that quality had to come first, an ethos instilled in him in during his career in the textile industry where the company he worked for adhered strictly to this principle. For this reason, he has never been interested in working to a deadline and has always encouraged those seeking to have something made quickly to look elsewhere.
The headings on these customer drawings for commission pieces read: 'Very Urgent', 'Top Priority' and 'Urgently Required' - a running joke between Cliff and this long-standing customer who was well aware that Cliff would rush a piece for no one!
And Cliff's pieces certainly are quality, being true 1:12 scale, made with the finest wood bought from 'Wood Supplies' of Wallington in Surrey, and with every piece beautifully finished by sanding, rubbing with wire wool and finally, by French polishing and waxing - a very long and time-consuming process but one which is considered very necessary by Cliff to avoid the unrealistic high-gloss finish he dislikes. Despite all of this, Cliff modestly tells me that he belives his work only to be "at the top end of middle level" of artisan miniature makers, citing the work of, among others, John Davenport whom Cliff greatly admires, as being one of the few at the very top level.
In May 1997, Edwardian Elegance made its debut at Kensington Dolls' House Festival - a wonderful endorsement of Cliff's work since, at that time, only the very best miniaturists were invited to exhibit there. Cliff and Brenda continued to attend Kensington over the years and through this, developed business with buyers from America, Germany, Spain, Sweden and elswhere around the globe. They were often helped at Miniatura by family members.
A one of a kind hall sofa commissioned as a replica of a real-life one seen in a high-end auction catalogue.
(Photo © Keri Burbidge.)
One area that Cliff has always stayed clear of is miniature marquetry. He tells me that it is something that doesn't look right unless it is done to absolute perfection and he doesn't have the necessary patience to acheive that! When the miniatures he made would have had marquetry inlay in real life, he opted instead to represent this by hand-painting the detailing: something he was able to do with great skill, as can be seen on Keri's hall seat in the photo above.
Cliff enjoyed working in a variety of different woods including mahogany, walnut (English, European and American), beech, copper beech, rosewood, sycamore and pearwood. As regards which pieces were made with which wood, Cliff tells me that he would generally just make pieces in whatever wood he felt it woud look best. Many items were made in mahogany and where a piece is slightly darker and marked 'MA' rather than just 'M', this denotes that the mahogany used was antique, having been sourced from an old door, shelf or suchlike. Other woods were used mainly for commission pieces.
Over the years, Cliff developed a number of regular lines of furniture (more of which below), as well as making bespoke pieces to commission, eventually producing 95 standard items, from tiny spoons to complicated double wardrobes (such as the one in the photo below) involving 115 individual pieces of wood with very fine mirrors!
Edwardian Elegance 'Waverton' bedroom suite, including a double wardrobe made up of 115 individual pieces of wood! (Photo © Keri Burbidge.)
Cliff tells me that his bestselling item was the little spoon rack which can be seen sitting on the table in the photo below, followed closely by the iconic jelly bag stand, also shown in the photo below:
The tiny spoon rack and the iconic jelly bag stand were bestsellers.
Offering a very personal service has always been important to Cliff and if a particular item of furniture wasn't available within his regular lines, he would happily take commissions from customers. He would actively encourage the customer to make drawings of what they wanted so that he could be sure that it was acheivable. He would then work with the customer to advise on which woods might be best for the piece, if necessary sending out small samples of suggested woods to help cutomers with the decision. A careful record of what each piece was made from was kept so that if a customer wanted to buy a further piece to add to a room, it could be made in the same wood, if required.
Each finished piece, whether regular or commission, was then carefully wrapped and posted out in a sturdy box with a hand-written letter from Cliff and an invoice. When I was buying pieces from Cliff in the 1990s and 2000s, I was astonished to find that he took orders for his work without requiring a deposit, he then made the pieces and posted them out to customers with his invoice for payment by cheque - a system based on trust which worked perfectly well for him as he tells me that he was only ever let down by one customer in all his years of trading.
The Other Half of Edwardian Elegance
Although Cliff made the furniture for the venture, his wife Brenda was very much involved too, accompanying Cliff to each of the fairs they attended around the country and also using her excellent needlework skills to produce pretty little hand-stitched and embroidered eiderdowns made of silk purchased from 'The Silk Route', as well as many other items of bedding, all of which complemented the Edwardian Elegance beds beautifully:
Hand-stitched and embroidered eiderdowns by Brenda Brown - sold on the Edwardian Elegance stand.
My Edwardian Elegance 'Henbury' double bedstead with hand-stitched and embroidered eiderdown by Brenda Brown.
Sadly, after over forty years of marriage and many happy years of running Edwardian Elegance together, Brenda passed away in December 2018 after a long period of ilness. Being, effectively, Brenda's main carer, Cliff obviously wasn't able to trade during during her illness, however, it wasn't until the end of March 2019 that the business ceased trading officially.
Identifying Cliff's Work
Identification is nice and easy as Cliff has always signed his work very clearly. The signature is Cliff Brown rather than Edwardian Elegance and pieces are usually, but not always, dated. Some pieces have either a capital letter or a sticker indicating the type of wood used to make them.
Left: Signature. Centre: Signature with date. Right: Signature with letter 'M' identifying the wood used as mahogany.
In later years, Cliff added his signature, date, and a small sticker detailing the type of wood the piece was made from.
Furniture by Edwardian Elegance
I have been lucky enough to be able to copy Cliff's comprehensive photographic archives of the pieces he made. Because there are over two hundred photos, however, I decided not to incorporate them into the main body of this article and have instead included the archives in their entirety in the following two sections after the end of the article:
The regular furniture ranges were called: Classic, Budworth, Christleton, Gawsworth, Henbury, Rostherne, Waverton and Wrenbury - with all but the 'Classic' range being named after Cheshire villages from the countryside around Cliff's home.
An example of a 'Classic' double bedstead. (Photo © Suzanne Alexander.)
Something a Bit Different
As the name Edwardian Elegance suggests, Cliff's pieces were almost exculsively based on items from the Edwardian era. I say "almost exclusively" only because I was lucky enough to view Cliff's late wife Brenda's dolls' house collection which includes a rather tongue-in-cheek "Footballers' Wives" house, for which Cliff was requisitioned to make some much more modern furniture - at that time there being very little modern dolls' house furniture on the market. So, the photos below are of some very rare non-Edwardian pieces!
Another set of furniture in one of Brenda's dolls' houses caught my eye too: the bedroom furniture in the photos below is from Cliff's 'Classic' range but has been beautifully hand-painted by Brenda's daugher Deborah, who is a talented artist and teacher.
And there is one more photo that I must share simply because I love it:
This is a little carpenter's workshop built for Brenda. It's attached to the end of two houses and a shop by Trevor Webster which form a little terrace. The terrace and workshop are based on Brenda's childhood memories of the street near where she grew up as a child in Tynemouth. Not only was her father a carpenter but he was actually called 'A. Carpenter' too!
Cliff Brown Today
Cliff is now a very active octagenarian living in Wilmslow, Cheshire and his attitude to age is admirable: he tells me that he doesn't even think about it because he doesn't have time to!
Cliff today in his wonderfully organised and cosy basement workshop.
And it's easy to see why he doesn't have time since, as well as being involved in various activities locally, he has a huge extended family including six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Though Cliff is not taking orders these days, it's clear from his workshop that he still 'dabbles' from time to time, which is good to know and especially good for anyone lucky enough to be on the receiving end of whatever he creates there!
And finally, I would like to thank Cliff for giving me both his time and generous access to his written and photographic archives. It has been an honour and a pleasure to meet him and to create this record of his wonderful work.
[My thanks too to Keri Burbidge and Suzanne Alexander for kindly sending me photos and allowing me to use them in my article. Unless otherwise stated, all photos are copyright Zoe Handy. Where photos are of original photos by Cliff Brown, these have been taken with his permission and the copyright for the original photographs remains with him.]
Regular Edwardian Elegance Sets and Items
Examples of Edwardian Elegance Special Commissions Since 1993