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Celebrated book artist donates life’s work to university archives

16 Mar 2024 4 minute read
Book artist Shirley Jones. Credit: Bronwen Frow-Jones

One of Wales’ most renowned book artists has donated her life’s work to Cardiff University.

The collection of Shirley Jones, founder of The Red Hen Press, is now housed at the institution’s Special Collections and Archives and open to all.

The donation of 28 books, made between 1975 and 2016, is the largest of its kind to the University by a living Welsh female artist and the only complete collection of her work.

As well being able to view the physical copies, the entire collection is being digitised and will be available to view and download for free online.

Celebrated artist and writer

The skilled artist and writer’s books are almost entirely her own work – from prose and illustrations to printing and bookbinding.

Welsh and Anglo Saxon themes, including landscapes, myths and the natural world feature prominently.

Jones’ work has been widely exhibited, including three-month solo retrospective exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, National Library of Wales, the National Museum and Art Gallery in Cardiff and Newport Museum.

Jones, who celebrates her 90th birthday this year, said: “I’m delighted to make this donation to Cardiff University. As a former student, I can’t think of a better place for it. I’ve spent my life inspired by Welsh books and culture, and this is a way of giving thanks for that.”

Combining original artwork and text, her books are hand-printed and expertly bound, using handmade papers and printing techniques which date back three centuries. Some of the books are more than half a metre in length.


Her son Evan Jones said: “Books and art have always played such an important role in mum’s life. It was what made her want to come to university – literature and art are the things that drive her.

“It’s been very important to her that her work be made accessible to all. So it’s wonderful that her collection will now be housed at Special Collections and Archives, allowing people to see the incredible craft that has gone into each one of her books.

“The fact that the collection is available digitally online too means audiences around the world will get to learn about her legacy.”

Book Nocturne for Wales | Sarah Hayton

Jones was born in 1934 in the Rhondda Valley. Her father was an unemployed coal miner, who later became a railway signalman. She studied literature at Cardiff University, where she met and later married Ken Jones. They had three children, who feature in a number of her books.

After graduating from Cardiff, Jones taught English for seven years, while also taking various art classes. She finally left teaching in 1974, at the age of 40, to study art full time for two years, taking courses in sculpture and printmaking at Croydon College of Art and Design.


Speaking about her production process, husband Ken Jones said: “Each piece has been created with the text and images working together holistically. The way the two elements interact with each other is what fascinated Shirley and so artists’ books were a very fitting area for her to work in.

“Her books were on a limited run of less than 50 copies and she took control of the entire production process – choosing fonts, the type paper and ink and even binding them at one time. The result is a beautiful collection and a unique expression of her creativity and passion.”

Alan Vaughan Hughes, Head of Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff University, said: “These monumental works show how, even in the digital age, books are living things – their movement, weight and the painstaking care shown in their construction speak volumes.

“They are a pleasure to leaf through and get lost in. The gift Shirley has made ensures that future generations of artists, researchers and readers will continue to be inspired by the beauty of books.

“Shirley’s not only mastered, but championed this almost forgotten art – and we are honoured to receive this donation from The Red Hen Press, which encompasses her life’s work as an artist and bookmaker.”

Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives is open to all by appointment. Shirley Jones’ works can also be enjoyed online at the University’s Digital Special Collections.

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