I think I know my limitations and I’m not a forceful painter or person, but I love things and putting this into paint is perhaps the best I can do for my society.”
– Gillian Saward (Journal Entry, May 7, 1983)
Born in England in 1934, Saward and her sister came to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan during World War Two, where they lived with a Canadian foster family from 1940 to 1945. While interested in art from childhood, it was not until her return to England, when she attended the Hammersmith School of Building Arts and Crafts, that she began any training. Three years later in 1948, the entire Saward family permanently immigrated to Canada and, following a few years in London, Ontario, relocated to Denfield, a community to the north of London.
Gillian Saward graduated from the one-year Special Art course at London’s H.B. Beal Secondary School with Honours in 1952. At Beal, instructed by artist Herb Ariss, Saward showed great aptitude for drawing. Years later in 1992, Ariss described the young Saward’s talent as standing out among his students and compared her drawing ability favourably to that of famous local artist Jack Chambers. Saward became and would remain close friends with Herb Ariss and his wife Margot, a fellow artist and Saward’s classmate at Beal.
Saward attended the Instituto Allende at San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in 1954, training with artist James Pinto and honing her drawing style. Upon her return to London the following year, she began participating in juried exhibitions at the London Public Library and Art Museum (a precursor to Museum London). At the LPLAM’s 1956 Annual Western Ontario Exhibition, she received the Young Painters Award, which was presented to her by Group of Seven artist
In 1956-1957, Saward made her way to Italy with plans to study art, but a lack of funds brought her home to London, Ontario where she took a variety of jobs over the next few years including arranging window displays at Simpson’s Department Store (1957), and work as a telephone operator at Bell. In 1960, she traveled back to Europe, again with the hope to study, but found herself in London, England, where she worked for a year. She then took a position in London, Ontario at the Ontario Department of Highways drafting office, remaining there from
1961 to 1964.
Saward had married Donald Phillipson in 1962, and in 1964 the couple moved to Toronto, Ontario (they would divorce in 1967). In 1968 Saward took a job at the University of Toronto in the Department of Instructional Media Services as a Medical Graph Artist, which she held until August 1973 when she quit to paint full-time.
In 1973 gallery owner Helene Mazelow, a good friend of Saward’s, encouraged her to build upon her existing interest in Vermeer and examine the Dutch artist’s use of colour to effectively depict spaces as being three-dimensional. Saward visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in August of that year to see Vermeer’s works on display. Her resulting series, Homage to Vermeer, was twenty paintings which applied elements of Vermeer’s style to her own art. Saward followed a process in the creation of these works – first referring to a photograph from which she would create a drawing, which would then in turn be traced onto a canvas before she painted, finishing the work using fine brushes.
In 1978 Saward formed a relationship with Aggregation Gallery in Toronto, Ontario and showed her work there often until 1982, the year that the gallery became known as the Wynick/Tuck Gallery. Her work was also exhibited at the Mazelow Gallery (between 1969 and 1979),
Nancy Poole’s Studio in London, Ontario (between 1970 and 1973); the Shayne Gallery in Montreal, Quebec (between 1978 and 1979), and McIntosh Gallery, Western University, in 1975, 1982, and 1983.
Saward became a member of the Ontario Society of Artists in 1980, and the next year taught part-time at the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Willowdale, Ontario.
Gillian Saward passed away suddenly in Toronto, Ontario in November 1983 after suffering a stroke. In 1985, the Saward family bestowed a selection of artwork by Gillian Saward along with related materials including Saward’s journals, to McIntosh Gallery, Western University. Following this gift, McIntosh Gallery created the Gillian Saward Memorial Fund.
In 1988, McIntosh Gallery organized an exhibition in Saward’s honour, A Tribute to Gillian Saward, which travelled to several galleries in Ontario. The show featured works from McIntosh Gallery’s collection, and those from other gallery, public, and private collections.
Biography by Renée Pascual and Luvneet K. Rana
Morden, Pat. “The Small Things of Value: The Art of Gillian Saward.” Western Alumni Gazette, 1992
Smart, Tom. A Tribute to Gillian Saward: 1934-1983. London, Ontario: McIntosh Gallery, 1988. Exhibition catalogue.
Phillipson, Donald. Donald Phillipson to Maurice Stubbs, March 3, 1988. Letter. From the McIntosh Curatorial Study Centre.
Phillipson, Donald. Donald Phillipson to Arlene Kennedy, December 26, 1994. Letter. From the McIntosh Curatorial Study Centre.
MacDonald, Colin S. “Saward, Gill (Gillian Saward Phillipson).” A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, v.8, pt.1. Safdie, Sylvia to Smith, Jori. Ottawa: Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd., 2006.
See also: Margot Ariss; Nancy Geddes Poole
Gillian Saward: McIntosh Gallery Creates the Gillian Saward Memorial Fund
Click here for information about works by Gillian Saward
in McIntosh Gallery’s collection.