PhD Opportunity – A visual history of Sir Charles Lyell’s notebooks

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A visual history of Sir Charles Lyell’s notebooks: documenting landscape evolution and climate change

Funded PhD Project

Aberdeen University  –  School of Divinity, History, Philosophy and Art History

Dr Isabelle Gapp – Prof John Underhill

About the Project

The University of Aberdeen is an internationally recognised centre for excellence for research addressing the global challenges of energy transitionenvironment and biodiversitysocial inclusion and cultural diversityhealth, nutrition and wellbeing, and data and artificial intelligence. Our interdisciplinary research crosses the broad themes of understanding across these global challenges and you can find out more about the University of Aberdeen’s five interdisciplinary challenge areas here.

In 2024 we are continuing to build a cohort of interdisciplinary postgraduate research students at the University of Aberdeen through the announcement of nine new Interdisciplinary PhD Studentships. Students will join a cohort of fourteen Interdisciplinary Research Fellows and three interdisciplinary postgraduate students appointed in 2023 and 2024, benefiting from a range of challenge-led activities and cross-discipline interactions, which will provide the students with unique opportunities to develop their skills and their interdisciplinary thinking. 

Project Description:

Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875), the author behind the Principles of Geology (1830-33), played a prominent role in shaping our planetary understanding during the nineteenth century, that of earth as an interconnected system involving life and its environment. His scientific contributions are numerous, but include an early explanation of climate change, ground-breaking explanations of co-seismic earth movements, and the theory of gradual “backed-up building” of volcanoes. In addition, what is particularly interesting to this project are his studies, written and visual, of 19th century glaciers and landscapes.

Taking a historical approach to science, especially geosciences, this project expands upon the archival turn in glaciology (Zumbühl et al 2008, Headland et al 2023) and interdisciplinary opportunities afforded within environmental art history (Gapp 2021). It also offers a unique opportunity to study unpublished materials aimed at studying and understanding the history of geology at a time of heightened scientific and cultural interest. This PhD project is framed around a hitherto untapped resource, notably the collection of 266 scientific notebooks (or “laboratory thought books”) spanning 1825 to 1874 that document Lyell’s international fieldwork. These notebooks have yet to be critically examined and their importance within both geosciences and art history assessed. This project will involve a study of the drawings and writings contained within these volumes, alongside the 1000s of geological and mineral specimens collected by Lyell and held within the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoScience Cockburn Museum, and the wider British, Scandinavian, and central European image cultures contemporary with Lyell’s studies. As glaciers, coastlines, and inland landscapes and their surrounding communities are increasingly impacted by climate change, this project adopts an interdisciplinary framework for engaging archival materials, visual and written, to better comprehend, frame, and assess past, present, and future geological environments.

Part of a larger interdisciplinary collaboration between the Department of Art History and the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen, this project will combine fieldwork, digital technology and visual analysis, archival research methods, and on-location research, with an understanding of geological processes through fieldwork, digital and technological skills and techniques. The student will receive all necessary training through the supervisory and project team. Alongside archival research in Edinburgh the student will also have the unique opportunity to visit international collections and join the supervisory team on fieldwork in glacial and other geomorphological environments. The ultimate outcome of the project will have important implications for understanding the effects that two centuries of climate change has had on landscapes.

Candidate Background:

Applicants should have either a master’s degree or a first or upper-second class honours degree in a relevant subject. We invite applications from candidates of all backgrounds who have an interest in art history, geology, environmental history, the history of science, or cultural geography. They will also have a strong interest and demonstrable skills in one or more of the following: visual or object analysis, handling archival materials, museum collections, GIS.

Given the interdisciplinary nature of this project, the student will have a genuine interest in working as part of an inter-departmental team and within a vibrant research community at Aberdeen, as well as alongside other post-graduate students. International travel will form a large component of this project and so a desire to spend time abroad is highly advantageous. 

We encourage applications from all backgrounds and communities, and are committed to having a diverse, inclusive team.

Informal enquiries are encouraged, please contact Dr Isabelle Gapp ( for further information.

Application Procedure:

  • Formal applications can be completed online:
  • You should apply for History of Art (PhD) to ensure your application is passed to the correct team for processing (the programme applied for may not be representative of the programme which will be offered to a successful candidate, this is for administrative purposes only)
  • Please clearly note the project title and lead supervisor in the respective fields on the application form
  • Your application must include: A personal statement, an up-to-date copy of your academic CV, and clear copies of your educational certificates and transcripts.
  • Pease provide two academic references with your application.
  • Please note: you DO NOT need to provide a research proposal with this application
  • If you require any additional assistance in submitting your application or have any queries about the application process, please don’t hesitate to contact us at

Funding Notice:

This 4 year studentship is funded by The Development Trust, University of Aberdeen. Funding will cover tuition fees, a Research Training and Support Grant (RTSG) of £20,000, and stipend based on RCUK rates (currently £18,622 per annum for 2023/2024). Eligibility is not constrained by nationality. Funding for international students does not cover visa costs (either for yourself or for accompanying family members), immigration health surcharge or any other additional costs associated with relocation to the UK.


• Gapp, I. (2021). A Woman in the Far North: Anna Boberg and the Norwegian Glacial Landscape. Kunst og Kultur 104, no.2, 82-96. doi: 10.18261/issn.1504-3029-2021-02-02
• Headland, R., Hughes, N., & Wilkinson, J. (2023). Historical occurrence of Antarctic icebergs within mercantile shipping routes and the exceptional events of the 1890s. Journal of Glaciology, 1-13. doi:10.1017/jog.2023.80
• Lyell, Sir Charles. 1830-1833. The Principles of Geology. 1st, 2nd and 3rd Volume. John Murray.
• Zumbühl, H.J., Steiner, D., and Nussbaumer, S.U. (2008). 19th century glacier representations and fluctuations in the central and western European Alps: An interdisciplinary approach. Global and Planetary Change 60, no.1-2, 42-57. doi: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2006.08.005

Feature Image: “In a house on this site lived from 1854-1875 SIR CHARLES LYELL Geologist and from 1876-1882 W.E. GLADSTONE Statesman.jpg” by Spudgun67 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
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Isabelle Gapp is an Interdisciplinary Fellow in the Department of Art History at the University of Aberdeen. Her research and teaching considers the intersections between nineteenth and twentieth century landscape painting, gender, environmental history, and climate change across the Circumpolar North.

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