Article by Leanne Gaudet

CURIOUS TURQUOISE, white, and navy coloured earthenware vase currently resides in the collection of the Eptek Art and Culture Centre in Summerside, Prince Edward Island (PEI). Upon first inspection, the vase might leave viewers feeling unimpressed: the navy glaze is smudged, causing the design to appear blurry and unrefined, while the underlying turquoise glaze drips down the lower portion of the piece. An examination of the bottom of the vase reveals that it has been created from dark red Prince Edward Island clay. Scratched into the visible clay at the bottom of the vase is the signature “M.A.Doull.” Despite first impressions, this vase is a valuable entry point into understanding the career and experimental spirit of one of Prince Edward Island’s first internationally successful women artists, Mary Allison Doull (1866-1953).

Doull was born in the small agricultural community of Wilmot Valley, PEI, to parents Hannah (née Butcher) and George Doull.1 The second youngest of 14 children, M.A. Doull built a life for herself outside the prescribed gender norms and separate-sphere ideologies that dominated western, upper-middle class societies of the nineteenth century, by pursuing a career as a professional artist. She began her formal education in fine arts at the Mount Allison Wesleyan Ladies’ College and Conservatory of Music in Sackville, New Brunswick, about 1888, and continued her studies in 1894 at the National Academy of Design in New York City, and at the Académie Julien in Paris in 1907. Her pottery pieces were exhibited across Canada, the United States, and Europe, and she established a series of studios throughout her life, where she taught and displayed her work. She was a member of the Canadian Handicraft Guild and the Women’s Art Association of Canada, among other organizations.

Despite the recognition that Doull garnered during her life, her name is now largely unknown among art historians and the general public. An examination of Doull’s ceramic pieces, such as the Eptek vase, and her studio space, provides valuable insight as to how she ambitiously negotiated her position as a working woman artist living in a rural locale during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These also demonstrate why Doull should be rediscovered for her ambitious work.

After operating a number of studios, Doull opened her final workshop about 1922, in Cape Traverse, PEI.2 In an article written in 1948, M. J. MacFadyen describes Doull’s studio as being filled with her own pieces and purchases that she had made during her travels. Her larger paintings lined the walls, and the space was furnished with antique furniture.3 MacFadyen also notes that Doull arranged a selection of her own pottery, made with Island clay. Photographs of Doull’s studio are amazing in what they reveal about her presentation of herself, especially when examined in conjunction with MacFadyen’s written descriptions and the variety of treasures she collected while travelling, her diverse paintings, the furniture, and her collection of pottery.

Doull’s careful presentation of her own work and travel souvenirs mimic the nineteenth century’s “House Beautiful” movement, which saw many upper and middle-class women attempting to emphasize their family’s refined taste and social standing through the cultivation of a finely decorated home. The display of handicrafts, textiles, ceramics, and souvenirs in the public spaces of a house, such as the parlour, became a way to communicate a woman’s domestic skills and respectability. The objects that fill Doull’s studio, where she frequently hosted guests, students, and patrons, fit the description of a Victorian parlour. As a number of art historians have hypothesized in examining other Canadian women artists’ studios, this resemblance to a formal parlour suggests that Doull sought to secure her reputation by creating an acceptable realm for a woman of the early twentieth century to occupy. Her decision to organize her studio in this way provides a unique opportunity to consider how a woman artist established and maintained a successful career while living in a rural locale.

The location of Doull’s studio also enabled her to gather local red clay from the shores of Cape Traverse. It has not yet been determined if and when Doull took formal lessons in making pottery. Few educational opportunities in the ceramic arts were available on the east coast of Canada at this time; however, it is possible that she trained while in New York City4 and then applied what she had learned to the clay from PEI upon her return. A notebook of Doull’s, now in the collection of the Prince Edward Island Provincial Archives, provides hints about her experimentation with clay, moulds, and glazes; she took notes and copied drawings from publications about ceramics, such as George J.Cox’s 1914 book Pottery, for Artists, Craftsmen and Teachers.

Other pages in her notebook include instructions for building a homemade hand wheel as well as detailed information about glazes. A specific recipe, titled “Clear Glaze for Red Clay,” has been circled and marked with additional remarks that read “very good for red clay.” Doull noted in the margins next to another formula that it “gives good blue turquoise” and “turned soft grey-green turquoise” after being fired all night. Could this be the shade of turquoise for which Doull would eventually become known? That Doull recorded different methods for creating ceramics supports the claim that she took the initiative in experimenting with a variety of glazes until she achieved positive results with the local clay.

An article about Doull in the PEI Agriculturalist newspaper, dated September 27, 1924, explains that there was “a ready sale for the products of [ceramics] in gift stores of the larger cities and the work [was] being taken up to a great extent by society women as an expression of their taste in art.” It is evident from her known body of work that she created pieces for this market as well. At least two known sets of similar bookends were created by Doull (Above). The inclusion of the inscribed “Canada” carved into the base of one of the bookends and the fact that she created multiples of these items strongly supports the conclusion that she was making easy-to-produce works that were to be marketed to tourists. Another bookend, perhaps one of the few featured below, can be seen on a shelf in the photograph of Doull’s studio. The article mentioning “society women” as being interested in purchasing this kind of art, further emphasized the advertising of her wares through the appearance of her studio, which replicated the context in which these items might eventually find a place.

The collection at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, PEI, further reinforces the fact that Doull was earning an income from producing objects for the tourist market. The label on a box, reading “Pottery Souvenir,” clearly illustrates how Doull was marketing her pottery. As an artisan, teacher, entrepreneur and artist, Mary Allison Doull was shaped by the red earth of Prince Edward Island, which tied her directly to the local environment and made her an important figure to the island community of the day. Doull has been credited with being the first woman of her social and professional standing to begin experimenting with objects made with island clay. Her dedication and eventual success with her pottery—and her paintings as well—speak of the entrepreneurial spirit of a pioneering woman who promoted the development of the ceramic and decorative arts on Prince Edward Island.

Leanne Gaudet is originally from Prince Edward Island, but currently resides in Ottawa. She has worked at the National Gallery of Canada and Library and Archives Canada. Her interests focus on women’s histories, material culture, and decorative arts.