The history of porcelain would be incomplete without mention of a short-lived yet incredibly important enterprise centered in University City, Missouri. The University City Pottery and Art Institute was the brainchild of entrepreneur and amateur potter Edward Gardner Lewis, and was but one division of his larger correspondence university called the People’s University. It had grown out of his American Woman’s League, which he’d launched in 1907 with the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the American home and providing wider opportunities for American women. Members of the league enrolled in correspondence courses and women deemed to have exceptional talent were invited to University City to study directly with the staff Lewis had assembled.
The pottery produced during the short but fruitful period is considered by many to be some of the best ever created in the 20th century, and University City works can be found in prestigious public and private collections nationwide.
Lewis managed to attract an impressive roster of faculty, including Taxile Doat as Director of the School of Ceramic Art. Doat had already achieved international renown for his work in porcelain at Sèvres in France and arrived in the United States in 1909 with the goal of building the “most perfectly designed and equipped art potteries in the world.” Along with Doat, Lewis hired a veritable who’s-who of ceramists: Frederick Hurten Rhead, Adelaide Alsop Robineau, and Emile Diffloth, among others. Lewis and his wife, Mabel, also modeled and decorated pieces. Together, the group proved native clays were superior to the finest available in Europe and their work was awarded the Grand Prix at the 1911 International Exposition at Turin, where it was judged to be the finest porcelain in the world.
Unfortunately, the league and university were subject to the vicissitudes of Lewis’ often troubled business dealings. He filed bankruptcy in 1911, causing both the closure of the Art Institute and the American Women’s League. Rhead, Robineau, and others left the same year. The University City pottery operation was reorganized in 1912 under Doat’s leadership as the University City Porcelain Works. He remained with a small group of assistants through 1914, having been directed by Lewis to develop a line of porcelain and commercial wares that could be sold to make the enterprise self-supporting. During those last two years, Doat was able to focus on the shapes and glazes he had produced earlier in his career, primarily inspired by his knowledge of Asian porcelain, bronzes, and enamels. He was particularly fond of fruit and gourd shapes, their undulating surfaces complementing and enhancing his spectacular, complex crystalline glazes.
Lewis closed the operation in 1914 and Doat returned to France in September of that year, bringing to a close one of the most ambitious and important ceramic operations ever undertaken on American soil. The pottery produced during the short but fruitful period is considered by many to be some of the best ever created in the 20th century, and University City works can be found in prestigious public and private collections nationwide.