Product has been added to the basket

Lino beauty

Black ice, Hoffellsjokull SE Iceland - Successive layers of black ash and ice give interesting patterns as the ice melts and the ash insulates the ice below
Jean Slee-Smith, at the Alpine Club

Jean Slee-Smith, geologist and linocut artist, talks to Ted Nield about her work and the interplay of art and science.

Geoscientist 20.03 April 2011

I caught up with the artist Jean Slee-Smith late last year at an exhibition of her work at the Alpine Club, East London. Almost straight away she told me that she “should have been a scientist” – an unusual observation – certainly much less common than the opposite observation from many professional scientists. So why didn’t she become a scientist first, and an artist second?

“I had an idyllic childhood in South Cumbria during and after the War. At school I found I was good at art, maths and physics; but having chosen the option of doing art in my small grammar school, I could not then select either biology or chemistry. And while I was good at it, unfortunately the maths was not interesting to me.

Hutton's Unconformity, Siccar Point - a key place in the understanding of sedimentary processes and the time they take to happen. “Later, I went to the Royal College of Art. There, we had the immense privilege to receive a series of lectures from the mathematician, author, poet, inventor and polymath Dr Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974). He’s perhaps best remembered today for his 1973 BBC documentary series The Ascent of Man but for me it was his lectures on such things as relativity and the theory of numbers - in everything from art and music to living organisms. I was enthralled!

“Then I married. We had three children, the eldest of whom was severely mentally handicapped. After he died there was still no provision for mental health in three local towns in Hertfordshire and I became involved for a while in securing the provision of hospital beds and a community service. During this time, to keep my mind active in other ways, I went to enrol in a night-school class; but finding it full found myself instead in a geology group, run by a petrologist (with a good rock collection!) who also conducted excellent field trips. The first lesson was about clay and how it transforms under heat and pressure. Later I studied for a degree in Earth sciences with the OU - with fascinating forays into evolution, oceanography and matter in the universe (chemistry in a vacuum and nuclear physics).”

Hallival, Rhum, Scotland. Layered cumulates from a Tertiary magma chamber Jean’s lino cuts have a rugged yet sensuous quality, well suited to mountainous landscapes such as those of Westmorland where she now lives. I asked Jean about her connection with her native landscape and found her connection with it was more than purely artistic.

“When I moved back north, I joined the Westmorland Geological Society and became southern co-ordinator on Cumbria RIGS, for whom I produced several field guides” she told me. “I have recently become interested in lichens and have an exhibition in the local library of lichens in the parish churchyard.”

Lino cutting is a pretty arduous technique – from wielding the knife to making the prints by hand. I asked whether she had explored other media, and what made lino cutting her particular medium of choice.

“I prefer to paint and draw in wild places with interesting geology. In cutting lino I have to select and simplify. This gives a unity to the rock, brings out the various features that are impossible in watercolour or oils.”

So, did she make her art partly in the hope of conveying something about geology? Did she feel somewhere a desire to explain about rocks or earth processes? Modestly, she admitted: “The two disciplines of art and geology are useful to each other. Geology makes my work different from that of other landscape artists; and my ability to observe and draw is, conversely, useful in the natural sciences. In linocut especially, textures and form become clearer, and detailed drawing can reveal something of the rock's history, its formation and the way it has weathered. I hope something of that comes across. My interests determine what I choose to portray and the picture evolves from the separate selections of different colours often surprising me in the process. ”

I think readers will agree that more than something does indeed come across in these compelling images.

Reader Offer

Jean Slee-Smith is pleased to offer her linocut prints to readers of Geoscientist at a discount of 10% off the marked price. To purchase, please visit her website at and mention “Geoscientist” when making purchases.