Fonds SC569 - Myfanwy Pavelić family fonds

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Myfanwy Pavelić family fonds

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  • Multiple media

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  • Source of title proper: Title based on contents of the fonds.

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  • 1930 - 2007 (Creation)

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0.15 m of textual records and other materials.

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Name of creator


Biographical history

Myfanwy Spencer Pavelic (née Spencer) was born on April 27, 1916, to Lillian Watts and John William Spencer in Victoria, British Columbia. The Spencer family was well-known in British Columbia for its dry goods and, later department stores in Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo. The family business was founded by Myfanwy’s Grandfather, David Spencer in 1873. Spencer passed down management to his sons, and John William ran the Victoria store with his brother. The Spencer family home was donated to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in 1951 by Myfanwy’s aunt, Sarah Spencer. Pavelic was a celebrated artist who is best known for her portraits of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, actor Katherine Hepburn, Queen Elizabeth II, conductor and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and her involvement with the Victoria artist group the Limners. She was dedicated to her art practice and disliked categorization as a portrait painter, as she used many types of media.

Early in her childhood, Pavelic was diagnosed with shallow knee sockets, which affected her mobility, and for which she would have several surgeries throughout her life. Due to her medical issues, Pavelic was privately tutored in her elementary years rather than sent to school;, and she began practicing art and music at an early age. Her childhood years also included many travels with her family, during which time she would live for short periods at schools abroad. Beginning at the age of twelve in 1928, she attended Norfolk House, a boarding school in Victoria, for four years.

A formative figure in both her childhood and early adult years was artist Emily Carr, whom she met at eight years old. At age fifteen in 1931, Carr showed Pavelic’s drawings in an exhibition at Carr’s Peoples Gallery. In 1932, after successful knee surgery, Pavelic pursued an education in Montreal at Miss Edgar and Miss Cramp’s School, where she studied music. At the age of eighteen, she moved to London with her mother to study with a tutor in music and art. During this time she was tutored by painter Augustin Booth. She remained in London for several years and then returned to Victoria. She married her first husband, Donald Campbell in 1939.

She and Campbell then moved to Vancouver in 1940, and it was during this period that she studied at the University of British Columbia. Concurrently, she discovered that she would be unable to be a professional musician due to a medical condition affecting her wrists, but this did not stop her from playing the piano for the rest of her life or hinder her interest in music. In 1942, she held exhibitions of her portraits across Canada, contributing funds to the Red Cross; she also moved to Ottawa with her husband. She was awarded the Beatrice Stone Silver Medal for her portrait of Judith Robinson and the W.H Malkin Medal for a drawing from the 12th Annual B.C Artists Exhibition held at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1943. About a year later, she moved by herself to New York City, after separating from Campbell, living, and working out of the historic Algonquin Hotel.

She received daily critiques from the artist Vittorio Borriello and met many other artists in New York. In 1945, her divorce from Campbell was finalized, and she continued to live in New York during the majority of the year, returning to Victoria in the summer. In the following years, her father died, and her mother came to live with Pavelic in New York, where they shared an apartment. In 1948, she married her second husband, Nikola Pavelic who was born in Zagreb and held a doctor of laws degree from the Sorbonne. They lived in New York permanently until the birth of their daughter Tessa in 1950, when they decided to move back to Victoria. However, Tessa was born with a disability and in 1956 the Pavelics decided to move back to New York for Tessa’s schooling and care until 1969. It was during this time that Myfanwy curtailed her art creation, as she was taking care of her family, and then her own well-being,

Following their permanent move back to Victoria in 1969, the Pavelics took up residence at her childhood summer home, Spencerwood, in North Saanich, which they renovated with an added studio. In 1971, the Limners group formed, of which she was one of the founding members, along with Maxwell Bates, Robin Skelton, Herbert Siebner, Richard Ciccimarra and Nita Forest. The naming of the group, ‘the Limners’, was deliberate, referring to the traveling painters of the European Middle Ages. Many other members joined the group in later years, including Karl Spreitz, Elza Mayhew, Pat Martin Bates, Robert De Castro, Sylvia Skelton, Walter Dexter, Helga and Jan Grove, Carol Sabiston, Rona Murray, Colin Graham, Jack Wilkinson and Leroy Jensen. While many of the Limners appear in Pavelic’s work, Karl Spreitz was an active presence in her studio, documenting her process and studio practice, and collaborating with her on various portraits.

Pavelic’s mid-career process was well established and is documented by her photographs, artwork and biographies. Ted Lindberg, in his text from the catalogue A Portrait By Myfanwy describes her process and technique extensively. She began by acquainting herself with the subject by having them visit her at Spencerwood and spending time photographing and conversing with them. She then would create many works of the same person in different compositions to capture the subject’s character. Others have written about Pavelic’s approach to her materials as irrefutably influenced by the abstraction movement in 1960’s New York, in both composition and colour. She produced a large quantity of work, including her experimental collages in the late 1960’s, and the works from Variations on the Figure in 1977. In recognition of her extraordinary work Pavelic was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1975.

The 1980s was a busy period for Pavelic. She worked on her most notable series Relationships, which featured many of the Limners, her family and others in paintings and drawings. Colin Graham remarked that this series was an “era of the visual arts of one city.” It is evident in the quality of the works, the admiration for the subjects of the paintings. The 1980s was also a period of achievements for Pavelic. In 1982, she received a commission to paint a portrait of Yehudi Menuhin for the National Portrait Gallery in England, making her the first Canadian artist to have a work included in the permanent collection. She received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts (DFA) from the University of Victoria in 1984 , and a year later she was invited into the Order of Canada. Additionally, she would paint Katherine Hepburn a number of times throughout the early to mid 1980s. She received the commission to paint the official portrait of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau (1991) displayed in the House of Commons in Ottawa. By the end of the commission, she had created forty preparatory works of Trudeau from which she created the final portrait. Nikola Pavelic died in 1996. In 1997, Pavelic became a founding member of the Canadian Portrait Gallery, and a year later, received the F.H Varley Medallion for Best Portrait Painting of Trudeau. In 2001, she was inducted into the Order of British Columbia for her achievements. During her lifetime she donated works to cultural institutions on Vancouver Island, including the University of Victoria and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Myfanwy Spencer Pavelic died in 2007 in Victoria, B.C at the age of 91. Her daughter Tessa died in 2009 at the age of 59.

Custodial history

Scope and content

The fonds consists of a notebook with birthday wishes, notes from friends/family (1980s), a notebook given from Tessa to Pavelic (1980), spiral bound notebook "Our Trip by Car to California, April 24, 1977" made by Tessa and Myfanwy, a small notebook "Some Silly Stories and Rhymes by Tessa for Mother, April 27th, 1985," a photograph of Pavelic with two dogs titled "The Happy Trio" (1979), unidentified framed photograph.

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Donated to the University of Victoria in October, 2015.


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Created by JF, August 1, 2018.

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  • English

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