There's something about the aesthetics of the nineteenth century and the romantic curiosity of that age that strongly resonates with my own sense of what amateur astronomy is all about. It's what drove me to make my own "Victorian" telescope and where better to house such an instrument than in a Victorian observatory. However it's not exactly easy to lay one's hands on such a thing in the 21st century, so I decided to have a go at building my own. The project cost me about £3500 and several hundred hours of unpaid labour which personally, I think is time and money well spent. Having a permanent observatory really is a game changer, enabling you to observe anytime the sky is clear and I'd highly recommend it to any serious amateur if your space and resources permit.
There's more information about this Victorian Observatory in the October 2017 issue of Sky and Telescope in Sean Walker's "Telescope Workshop" section.
The ceiling is decorated with art from a 17th century celestial globe
Asia Wetherell and I all dressed up for an evening's observing
With the observatory lights set to dim red, the real stars sit alongside the fabulous beasts of the globe
Of course the whole point of an observatory is to observe - the shutter and cupola slid back in use
The curved walls and step seat make for a comfortable observing position. In this shot the refractor is fitted with a home made 4 prism spectroscope.
I began with some cardboard models so I could see which design of observatory would look and work best in a small English garden. Inside was a moving replica of the telescope and mount which enabled me to see how good a view of the sky different shutter designs would offer.
The moving articulated model of the telescope.
Once the model looked right, I made precision drawings of the curved parts to pass on to the metal benders
The precision bent girders are assembled into the skeleton of the roof.
This is the lower ring that supports the main frame of the building.
When installing the uprights I found it well worth the effort to make a wooden jig to hold each section correctly vertical whilst it was welded into place.
The entire building stands a couple of inches above the ground on 18 M16 domehead coach bolts. Because try as you might, there will always be some settlement of the patio and this offers an adjustment to cancel any surface deviations that may develop in time.
The door is built in much the same way, a welded steel skeleton with laminated marine ply cladding.
At an early stage in the construction I temporarily installed the telescope and mount to be double sure that the dimensions taken from the scale model were indeed correct and that the whole thing actually worked!
The model observatory with the real thing in the background
The design called for brick walls but since I wanted a low overall weight and curved sides, it was necessary to make my own special bricks. Step one was to set some plaster on a metal plate bent to the correct radius. Once set, it was hand cut into five "master" bricks which were then cleaned up and given nice edges and a smooth surface. From those master bricks I made a silicone rubber mould in which the actual bricks were cast.
The metal former from which the 5 master bricks were made. These were then used to create the silicone mould for the rest.
100 bricks drying in the sun - in total 500 were required!
Once all the bricks were on, I pointed the gaps with regular cement and the result is very much like a standard brick wall.
I think copper is a very beautiful material for roofing and I love the deep green verdigris that forms on it with age. However copper is exceedingly expensive, heavy and would have been very difficult to work into some of the details like the corbels. So I decided to experiment with paint effects that would give a copper look, without any of the copper problems. Since I'm an artist I should know how to paint right?
Well, it was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. But I did finally manage to develop a technique using several stages that I think yields a pretty convincing copper patina.
The dome before and after the copper effect paint treatment
The architectural details like the cupola and corbels were made from fibreglass and treated with the same copper paint effect as the aluminium roof.
The corbels being cast
The cupola being cast
I've always loved old star maps embellished with mythical creatures and as it happens, in the library of my old university there was a massive antique celestial globe which I was able to get permission to photograph for this project (unfortunately I'm not at liberty to distribute these images).
The globe artwork adapted to 14 separate panels to fit the observatory roof
Riveting the cut panels to the roof skeleton
The roof rotates on six 90mm castors attached to alternate ribs. The other 6 ribs have screw jacks so that the roof can be raised enough for any wheel to be removed and serviced.
The big equatorial mount - you can read about the design and construction of this mount here