Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 44.
Rosemary Gilliat Eaton: A Biographical Sketch
by Danielle Siemens
In many ways, Rosemary Gilliat defied the gender conventions for women of her time: she worked as a press photographer—a vocation primarily reserved for men, she travelled widely in Canada and abroad by herself and with other women, she married relatively late in life, and she never had children. Moreover, for nearly two decades she had an active freelance career, publishing in both Canada and England. In later years, she became known for her environmental and cultural activism. Yet despite her accomplishments and contributions, Gilliat has remained largely unknown. Through my research and writing I hope to rectify this absence in the historical record, highlighting the life and work of this notable individual and seeking to understand the relations of gender that, for much of modern history, have inhibited the recognition of women’s creative labour.
Born in 1919 in Hove, England, Gilliat spent much of her youth on her family’s tea estate in British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and in Swiss boarding schools. In her early 20s, a childhood interest in taking pictures led Gilliat to London to pursue photography professionally. By the fall of 1952 she made the bold decision to immigrate to Canada by herself. Within a year of settling in Ottawa, Gilliat began publishing photographs in some of the most influential journals of the time, including Maclean’s, Weekend Magazine, and the Hudson’s Bay Company magazine The Beaver, as well as working on assignment for federal agencies such as the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources and the National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division (1941–1984). Gilliat travelled throughout Canada and sought assignments that allowed her to explore the diverse geography and cultures of her adopted home. She photographed, to name but a few examples, the activities of the Alpine Clubs in the Rocky Mountains and the Gatineau Hills, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the infancy of Inuit cooperatives in Nunavut and Nunavik.
In 1963, at the age of 43, Gilliat married British hydrographer Michael Eaton, and less than two years later the couple followed Eaton’s career to Nova Scotia. Although Gilliat’s own photojournalism career came almost entirely to a halt, she continued to take photographs for her own interest. The Eatons soon purchased a property overlooking the salt marsh in Cole Harbour, now a suburban community within the Halifax Regional Municipality. Captivated by the wildlife around the harbour, Gilliat began to document it with her camera, to consult other environmentalists, and to publish her written observations in local journals. When urbanization posed a threat to the fragile local ecosystem, Gilliat helped form a committee that successfully halted government plans to build a sewage treatment plant in the area. The committee later developed into the Cole Harbour Rural Heritage Society, with the dual mandate of protecting the environmental and cultural history of the area. The society eventually formed the Cole Harbour Heritage Farm Museum, which has successfully preserved many historic buildings in the area. In addition to its diverse collection of farm artifacts, the museum also houses Gilliat’s archive post-1965, which includes thousands of photographs and the recordings of over one hundred interviews she conducted with elders in the community. Today, a popular walking trail winds through the Cole Harbour salt marsh, and near the Eatons’ former home is the entrance to a path called Rosemary’s Way—a fitting dedication to a woman who tirelessly fought for the area’s protection.
In Eaton, Gilliat found an equally ambitious and industrious partner. After spending several years leading the Canadian Hydrographic Service’s Arctic program, he joined its Atlantic regional office in Nova Scotia. Around the same time, he also furthered his education and earned a degree in physics from Dalhousie University. An innovative hydrographer, Eaton was instrumental in developing and promoting the electronic chart, a computerized version of the traditional marine chart that has become a crucial navigational tool. In recognition of his groundbreaking work on marine technology, Eaton was awarded the Transport Canada Marine Safety Award in 2000 and appointed to the Order of Canada in 2004.
Gilliat passed away in 2004 at the age of 85, and Eaton died 10 years later. Each was dedicated to their own passions, and together they left behind a legacy worthy of our attention today.