John A. Sawhill was born in Colorado, in 1892. During his younger years, he served as a soldier in World War I. Upon his return home, he attended and graduated from Princeton University.
From 1927 through 1957, Mr. Sawhill taught Latin, Greek and German language classes at JMU. At this point in time, however, it was called State Teachers College and then Madison College. He traveled frequently with his second wife, Bessie, who taught Classics for the English department at JMU. Sawhill and his wife, especially enjoyed traveling throughout the Middle East, where he collected thousands of items including, books, documents, icons, coins and works of art.
John A. Sawhill died in 1976, bequeathing his collection to the James Madison University Foundation, Inc. It is his collection that provided the basis for the ancient objects in the Madison Art Collection.