A special collection

Friday 28 November 2014


Jean Johnston B&W

An acclaimed Fife artist has paid tribute to the archives of the University of St Andrews with a special collection of her own.

Jean Johnstone, a St Andrews graduate, will formally hand over her bespoke artwork to the University Library at a special event today (Friday 28 November 2014).

The entirely hand-crafted ‘artist’s book’ was commissioned to mark the 600th anniversary of the University and celebrates seven key individuals featured in the University’s ancient collections.

Jean was approached by the University Library to create a unique tribute to the University’s historically significant archive.  The result, a hand-made, hand-lettered book, is her artistic response to the work of historic figures that she felt personally inspired by.

The delicate, concertina-style book features Jean’s responses to the work of Eve Arnold, John Adamson, Elizabeth Blackwell, Maria Sibylla Merian, Sir Steven Runciman, Esther Inglis and Antonios Jannaris.

While all of Jean’s books are limited editions, ‘A Special Collection’ is a unique work that will find its home in the University Library alongside a full collection of her previous work.

Jean said the book was her ‘personal reaction’ to the University’s treasures.  She explained, “All of the individuals I reacted to have really touched my life and inspired me in lots of different ways. What draws them all together is that they’re witness to their own time, reaching out to other people and to the present day, showing you what’s out in the world and inviting you to look at it and think about it.

“The St Andrews connection that draws all of these individuals together was also a crucial draw for me.  My book is a celebration of all of those people and I hope that it not only honours their memory but also brings their work and achievements into focus for people who were unaware of their rare gifts.”

Although Jean was an Art History student of the University, she didn’t fully examine its ‘exquisite’ collections until 1999.  Fortuitously, the artist met one of her inspirations, legendary Magnum photographer Eve Arnold when she was made an honorary graduate of the University in 1997.  Jean was particularly inspired by Eve’s ‘very beautiful’ black and white photos from the sixties, including one of a ‘beautiful blonde woman deep in thought in a desert landscape’.  The photograph, of Hollywood bombshell Marilyn Monroe, is just one of Arnold’s photographs gifted to the University Library.

Jean, who graduated from St Andrews with an MA degree in 1974 History of Art, added, “The book is also a celebration of the donors who are so important as they gifted these works to the University; all of these people should be celebrated. At the end of my book I make a dedication in honour of the keepers of the collections, all the unnamed people over the generations who kept these pieces. Where would we be without them?”

Earlier this year, Jean hosted a presentation event for Special Collections staff, who were encouraged to interact with her books.  Usually wrapped in tactile material, Jean’s books are delicately hand-crafted pieces containing the hand-written text of a poem, spread out across several pages and interspersed with delicate pieces of art. Although Jean’s work is usually in monochrome, for this special edition, she added a splash of colour – blue, red and gold – in tribute to the University’s colours.

Gabriel Sewell, Head of Special Collections at the University, said, “We are delighted to add Jean Johnstone’s beautiful album ‘A Special Collection’ to the holdings here.  The staff of Special Collections felt privileged to engage with Jean as she developed the book.  The book was commissioned by the University Library in celebration of the University’s 600th anniversary, and it is a truly unique work, demonstrating Jean’s own reaction to the diverse collections held by University of St Andrews.”

Fittingly, the book will be presented to the University during Book Week Scotland and in time for St Andrew’s Day in the highly appropriate setting of the King James Library.

Paying tribute to the physical medium, Jean added, “It’s so important now with where we are in the digital age. Yes you can look online, but there is no substitute for turning a page and experiencing the lines and letters left by human hands.”

The book “A Special Collection” by Jean Johnstone can be viewed in the Martyrs Kirk Research Library on North Street.



You are invited to attend the handover of the book at 5.15pm at the King James Library on South St, St Andrews tomorrow (Friday 28 November).

Images of the making of the book are also available from the Press Office – contacts below.

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook, Senior Communications Manager on 01334 467227 or email [email protected]

Ref: A Special Collection 281114

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