This small sketchbook of around 100 watercolour sketches of St Andrews scenes represents just a tiny fraction of the artistic output of its creator, John Nicol Bonthron. He is thought to have produced around 10,000 miniature pictures of his home town in his 81 years. The sketchbook contains the originals, which he reproduced in miniature, as many as 50 or a 100 on a single sheet of paper, and sold or sent around the world to those with an interest in St Andrews.
John was born on 27 November 1854 at 65 South Street where his father Robert ran a successful draper’s business. The Bonthron family were originally fishermen in Wemyss and Buckhaven. We have a letter written in 1837 by the Commissioners of the Herring Industry to Thomas and Robert Bonthron of Buckhaven – probably his father and uncle. Robert moved to St Andrews in the 1840s, settling first in Baker’s Lane as a clothier, then opening the draper’s shop in South Street in 1849. He was elected a baillie of the town in 1858 and appears in town council minutes (B65/11/14) and in burgh court actions. He acted as trustee for fellow businessmen, including Benjamin Evans at the Cross Keys Hotel, and it may have been this generosity that forced him into bankruptcy in 1874. Thereafter he was a commercial traveller for other drapery businesses.
Robert had married Janet Nicol in 1853 and John was the eldest of a family of 6. He trained as a draughtsman by profession, and sketched as a hobby:
“I started it before penny postcards became popular. I went about the town for a bit, drawing and sketching, and in the end had a book with over a hundred drawings and paintings of various parts of the town”
(‘Painted 10,000 pictures of St Andrews’ from The Peoples Journal, 19 January 1935.)
The sketchbook includes views of St Andrews, the harbour, the cathedral, the castle, Pends, towers in the Abbey wall, Madras College, university buildings, churches, golf course, and the coastline. He added notes on the history of buildings in St Andrews opposite the sketches. There is an index of the paintings at back. Possibly the bedroom drawn inside the front cover may be John’s own room. His other talents were for engraving, particularly engraving The Lord’s Prayer onto a threepenny piece, and for meticulous drawings of Willow Pattern china, followed by a description of the story which was unfolding on each cup and saucer. The St Andrews Preservation Trust holds other works by Bonthron.
He spent his last years in Gibson House, Argyle Street, and died on 12 December 1935.