Fonds F996 - William Sawyer family fonds

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William Sawyer family fonds

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  • 1815-1998 (Creation)
    Sawyer, William

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Physical description

0.50 m of textual records and other material

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Name of creator


Biographical history

William Sawyer was born to John and Agnes Brown Sawyer in Montreal, Quebec, November 9, 1820. His academic background is unknown, however it seems likely that he had some form of education given his level of literacy evident in later years. He found his first employment with a Montreal law firm at the age of fourteen. By the early 1840's Sawyer opened a studio in Montreal in the Moyer Building and sought commissions for portraits from the local citizenry. Although business was steady, it was not sufficient for Sawyer who was likely responsible for helping to support his step-mother (Ann Sutherland) and half-sister Elizabeth Sarah. In order to garner more business Sawyer became an itinerant painter travelling the north shore of Lake Ontario, ranging as far west as Toronto, Sawyer stopped at all the major centres in between.

Exhibition and promotion was a necessity for the itinerant painter. Sawyer exhibited at the Montreal Society of Artists in 1847, in the company of Krieghoff and several other artists. In 1867 he exhibited with the Society of Canadian Artists in Montreal, and in 1872 he sent works to the first exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists at Toronto.

During Sawyer's travels, he met Eliza Jane Baxter in Kingston, whom he married November 18, 1851. With this added financial responsibility, Sawyer continued to travel, occasionally moving further afield. In 1852 Sawyer travelled to New York with his new wife but quickly returned and set up a studio in Kingston in the Gas Office Building. The studio did not last long and the Sawyers returned to Montreal in the same year. The Sawyers remained in Montreal until 1855 when Sawyer, likely due to Eliza's desire to be close to her family, permanently relocated in Kingston. Although settled in Kingston, Sawyer continued to work as an itinerant artist travelling along the north and south shores of Lake Ontario. Having some level of success during this time allowed Sawyer to travel to Europe in 1862 where he was able to view the work of some important portrait artists in Scotland, England, France, and Belgium.

Upon his return Sawyer divided his time between Kingston and Montreal. In Montreal he partnered with Edwin R. Turner in an “Art and Photographic Studio”, acting as both a painter and a photographer. In 1863 Sawyer’s reputation brought him a commission to paint a portrait of John A. Macdonald for the Kingston city hall , where several of his portraits of mayors were already hanging. His commissions extended to three speakers of the Senate, who engaged him to paint their portraits for the Library of Parliament, and to Sir William Edmond Logan, William Molson, Charles Tupper, and William Workman, as well as to senators Frank Smith and Robert Duncan Wilmot.

William Sawyer continued to be an active photographer, painter, and promoter of his work, until his death at age 69, in Kingston on December 9, 1889. Sawyer was survived by his wife, six sons and three daughters.

Custodial history

Scope and content

The fonds consists of records created over 150 years by William Sawyer and his descendants. Predominantly the fonds is comprised of photographs, artwork, notes and prints that were created and received by William Sawyer in his role as photographer and portrait painter. Also included is documentation surrounding his career and activities that was gathered, or transcribed, by two generations of his descendants in their research and commemoration of his life and work. The fonds has been divided into three series: Agnes Etherington Art Centre exhibition; Marion Wallace material; and William Sawyer material.

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Physical condition

Some photographs are in fragile condition.

Immediate source of acquisition

Donated to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre and Queen's University Archives by Ms. Marion Wallace in 2001; and by W.D. Sawyer and J. Mouldey in 2006.


The arrangement of this fonds has been imposed by the archivist. The material has been arranged and rearranged during its existence in a number of different systems given the use to which it was being put, i.e. exhibition, familial commemoration, etc. No original order could be discerned, and there was some intermingling of contemporary family material with original William Sawyer material and vice versa. The current arrangement was decided upon for sake of convenience and with the hope of reflecting this history.

Language of material

  • English

Script of material

Location of originals

F3 D15
F3 D10
(302) Map 68

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Associated materials

Portraits by Sawyer are held in Kingston, Ont., at the City Hall and at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University; in Ottawa in the National Gallery of Canada, the Library and Archives of Canada, and the Parliament Buildings; in Hamilton, Ont., in the Art Gallery of Hamilton; in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; in the Winnipeg Art Gallery; and in private collections.

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Further accruals are expected

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Location (use this to request the file)

  • Shelf: 2054
  • Shelf: F3 D15
  • Shelf: F3 D10
  • Map cabinet: (302) Map 68