Born in Victoria on April 27, 1916, Myfanwy Spencer Pavelic was one of Canada’s most celebrated portrait artists. At the Sooke Region Museum we are lucky to have nearly a dozen of her pieces in our permanent art collection. Pavelic descends from one of Victoria’s most prominent families.
Her grandfather, the renowned David Spencer, built a retail enterprise in Victoria upon his arrival in the mid-1800s and her father, William Spencer, helped manage the family business in the early 1900s. Pavelic’s family home was called Hael-y-Bryn (Welsh for brow of the hill) and was situated across the road from Craigdarroch Castle. In 1951 her grandfather’s home, the Spencer Mansion, was given to the city of Victoria and became the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Pavelic spent much of her childhood traveling to Europe, drawing and playing music. She took formal piano training, but due to health concerns she could not pursue it as a career. Instead, she focused on her art. At eight years old Pavelic was introduced to Emily Carr, who would become her mentor. At age 15, Carr invited Pavelic to showcase her drawings at an exhibition in Carr’s Peoples’ Gallery. In a letter to Pavelic’s mother Lilian Spencer, on June 23, 1938, Carr wrote, “I think it is amazing the ground she has covered in the comparatively short time she has been studying… I think she will go far for she is young yet. I think her work is good—very good” (excerpt from Dear Nan: Letters of Emily Carr, Nan Cheney, and Humphrey Toms).
In the 1960s, while experiencing the busy art scene of New York, she pursued her passion for realism and portraiture. During her time in New York she met Nikola Pavelic, son of the former prime minister of Yugoslavia. They married in 1948 and had a daughter in 1950 in Victoria. For the next couple of decades Pavelic focused on being a mother and spent some time in New York. In the 1970s she became a founding member of the Limners, a prestigious group of artists in Victoria. Throughout the later part of the 1900s Pavelic accepted numerous commissions for portraitures. Eventually she settled on Ardmore Drive in North Saanich and spent some time creating sketches and paintings of her surroundings there.
Due to Pavelic’s close relationship with Sooke historian Elida Peers, she gifted many pieces of her art to the museum. Peers recalls how very pleased she was to have the support of her good friend Myfanwy Pavelic, one of Canada’s top artists, when the museum began organizing the annual Fine Arts Show in 1986. Mrs. Pavelic not only allowed the museum to use the prestige of her name in the first major award of the show, the Myfanwy Spencer Pavelic Award for Best In Show, but she began the tradition of presenting a piece of art to the museum each year.
In our collection is a framed charcoal drawing from 1971 titled “Black Diamond” (1996.007.001). The piece was donated to the museum in 1996 in honour of the Fine Arts Show. It is in a sleek silver frame, which is characteristic of most of her pieces in our collection. This drawing demonstrates Pavelic’s fascination with abstraction, simplicity and shapes. In addition to experimenting with shapes, she also explored the art of collage and landscapes.
In her piece “Black Sky,” she uses coloured paper to create a landscape (1991.012.001). The 1976 image has a black sky, orange ground, and three rocks. The artwork is in a metal silver frame, has white matting and is signed in the lower left corner.
The museum also has a reproduction of one of her most well-known works, which is the official portrait of Canadian Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Pierre Elliot Trudeau (1992.038.001). The original is acrylic on canvas and the image shows the pensive Trudeau wearing his trade loden cape and a signature red rose on his blazer’s lapel. Trudeau commissioned Pavelic as the artist of his official portrait, but she insisted that he had to come to her studio in Sidney, B.C. so she could get to know him. While at her studio she spent two days studying Trudeau and created several drawings and took videos and photographs. The painting won the F.H. Varley Medallion for Best Portrait Painting in 1998.
In the 1970s and 80s Pavelic developed a portrait series called Relationships.
From this series, the museum has an oil painting of Herbert Siebner and his daughter Angela (1989.055.001). This 1984 Acrylic was No. R-20 in Pavelic’s series. The painting is in a wooden frame that is painted light gray. This painting is an excellent example of Pavelic’s ability to capture realism, depth and emotion in her portraits. Pavelic presented this piece to the museum on the opening night of the Fine Arts Show in 1987. A picture of Pavelic gifting this painting to the museum can be found in the August 5, 1987 edition of the Sooke News Mirror. Additional Pavelic pieces in the museum’s collection include a signed print of her portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, a charcoal drawing of a woman titled “Elza Mayhew,” a silk screen print of a man’s face titled “Karl” and a watercolour from her Landscape of Love series titled “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore Art thou Romeo.” Pavelic earned numerous awards and recognitions in her lifetime including the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia and an honorary doctorate from the University of Victoria. She passed away on May 7, 2007 at the age of 91.
Brianna Shambrook Collections and Exhibits Manager Sooke Region Museum