Fiona Horan

Working on a linocut of Herstmonceux Observatory, Sussex

I’ve been wanting to do a linocut of Herstmonceux Observatory for a while. I like astronomy and science as a topic for prints. The buildings and structures used by astronomers and physicists really interest me. Herstmonceux Observatory is not far from here, out on the slightly spooky Pevensey Levels between Hastings and Eastbourne.

In the 1950s Greenwich Royal Observatory moved out to the Sussex countryside to escape the light pollution in central London. For a few decades, this attractive rural spot in the grounds of Herstmonceux Castle was a hotbed of scientific activity. It seems to have been a good place to work.

Alas, the biggest telescope was eventually taken away to the clearer skies of the Canaries, and the rest of the complex was closed down – a victim of cheaper travel and international co-operation! It was just simpler to send astronomers to work abroad in less cloudy or crowded countries.

The copper-topped Observatory buildings still remain, as do most of the telescopes. The Observatory has now become a Science Centre and family attraction. Stargazing evenings are often held.

The site is very quirky, with the odd mixture of conservative yet radical architecture of the 1950s. For instance, the lily pool is lovely – but why did the architects think walkways across water, unlit, at night, were a sensible idea? Copper domes are apparently not ideal for observatories, either – but they look good, so on they went. The buildings were faced with brick, to fit in with the local style – but the shape is unmistakably mid-Century – with the main building between three of the observatories long, low and flat-roofed. The whole thing looks like a rather mad 1970s comprehensive school. With lily ponds. And telescopes. And big trees.

I really like the place. So I had a go at a reduction linocut – approximately A3.

Reduction is quite scary – especially of a pretty large block of lino. It uses less lino to make a colour print, but can go irretrievably wrong at any stage.

Preparatory drawing for Herstmonceux Observatory linocut by Fiona Horan

I used Akua water-based inks for all the colours because I didn’t want to have to wait several days between layers.

Here is the original drawing. I wanted to show the Observatory at night, in action. It is a spread out site with six separate domes. My difficulty was showing enough of this in a portrait format. In the end, I decided that two domes, part of the main building, the trees and the lily pond would be enough to give an idea of the Observatory’s character.

A few colours of a linocut in progress of Herstmonceux Observatory.

Here’s the linocut several colours in. I was pleased with the copper dome colour, but uncertain how the other colours would work out. I had already decided that the foreground would have a lot of black as it seems the simplest way to show pond water at night!


Now here’s the linocut with the sky colour added. Only the black left to do, which I hope will tie all of it together ….

Herstmonceux Observatory linocut in progress with sky added

So then for the final carving. I hadn’t done a reduction print in quite a while, and it is tricky doing one where the final colour, the dark outline, is the main one. I sometimes use two blocks for this style of linocut – one for the outline, and a second for the colours, which I carve away as a reduction block.

And here it is with the final carving rolled up and printed.

I was a bit disappointed in these – but they’ve grown on me, and I’ve used the print on a greetings card. The prints themselves are a tiny edition, as is often the way with reduction prints, particularly as I don’t have a press. My arm gets tired!

There are only 8 linocuts of Herstmonceux Observatory in this edition.