John Kelly

Artist John Kelly explores the natural landscapes of Barra and Surtsey through drawing, photography, journal entries and found objects.

This online exhibition accompanies a temporary exhibition at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences from February - July 2022.

“John Kelly’s forensic approach to landscape brings a new appreciation to the processes that link ice, water and the land.”

Professor David Walton, British Antarctic Survey

This exhibition presents artist John Kelly’s field explorations on two very contrasting islands, beginning in the young lava fields of Surtsey, Iceland, and ending among the time-worn rocks and erosional surfaces of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

The islands of Surtsey and Barra represent the two extremes of the geological time scale

Surtsey erupted in 1963 and rose from the sea bed that lies south west from the mainland of Iceland. It is closely aligned to the plate margins that divide North America from Eurasia and forms the most recent part of the Heimaey archipelago of volcanic islands.

Barra consists of some of the oldest rock on earth. Over three billion years ago volcanic activity produced what is now known as Lewisian Gneiss which today forms much of the Hebridean region.

Barra’s journey to its present location has been a long one that has seen it 'drift' from Antarctica, crossing the equator approximately three hundred million years ago. Two million years ago these rocks entered their present latitude during the Quaternary Period and were subjected to extreme glacial activity.

From the quick step of Surtsey to the immense well of time that is Barra their history could not be more of a contrast. However, both are now subject to similar forces of change including sea-level variations, denudation and, in the case of Barra, the impact of human settlement during the Anthropocene.

But the line of division is not always clear and the impact of the Anthropocene is already affecting Surtsey. Flotsam on the beaches, airborne pollution, climate change, and sea-level rise threaten an island that is a mere fifty years of age. Subsequently, Surtsey already requires protection to maintain its pristine environment and assist its struggle for survival.

Lewisian Gneiss collected on Barra

Lewisian Gneiss collected on Barra

Lava rock collected on Surtsey

Lava rock collected on Surtsey


"This young island has come into an old world and its struggle to survive is the story of each day"

John Kelly, Surtsey Journal, July 2018


"Barra has elements of an exhumed landscape, outer garments peeled away to expose the bones of old rock and the light of a new day"

John Kelly, Barra Journal, July 2019

John worked with researchers from the University of Iceland to better understand the geology and ecology of Surtsey

Icelandic Research on Surtsey

“The formation of volcanic islands in the ocean is not uncommon. But most islands don‘t live very long; they are removed in the space of weeks or months by wave action. However, if eruptions last long enough, the islands may survive just as Surtsey did. I have spent most of my career studying eruptions within glaciers. This includes observing eruptions as they happen.  We study how the craters and the ice-covered volcanoes evolve and shape the glacier. Later the glacier shapes the volcano, in a manner similar to how the ocean has shaped Surtsey. A large part of the landscape we see in the volcanic regions of Iceland is formed in eruptions beneath the glaciers of the Ice Age. Surtsey is in some ways similar to these volcanoes but different in other respects. For me this comparison is fascinating and very rewarding.”

Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson Professor of Geophysics University of Iceland. Nov 12, 2019.

“Surtsey has been visited by scientists every year from 1964. A unique record of geological and biological observations has been gathered and findings have been published in scientific papers and books. During the eruption and formation of the island the main emphasis was on volcanology and other geological research. Biological research was also started in the first years as the island gave a rare opportunity to follow colonization of the new land by microorganisms, plants and animals. Through the years biological research has increased with the formation of complex communities and interactions of seabirds and vegetation.

Geological monitoring on the island has also continued to the present day, with the main emphasis on the erosion of the island and palagonite formation. Research on Surtsey has mainly been in the hands of scientists from the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, the Agricultural University of Iceland, Institute of Earch Sciences at the University of Iceland, the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute and the Icelandic Met Office. Scientists from foreign universites and institutions have also been greatly involved.“

Borgþór Magnússon Plant Ecologist Icelandic Instutute of Natural History. May 15, 2019.

Surtsey: The Birth of An Island

Iceland experiences volcanic eruptions every five years on average and is one of the Earth’s most active volcanic areas. Most Icelandic islands were created by volcanic eruptions about 5000 years ago. Only Surtsey, the most southern island, is younger. The island was formed after a volcanic eruption in 1963, and was already protected as a natural conservation area during its formation. For the 50th birthday of Surtsey, a film crew was allowed to visit the island .

The systematic probability of the birth of an island. Sketches by John Kelly

The systematic probability of the birth of an island. Sketches by John Kelly

The Surtsey Journal July 2018

listen to John reading from his Surtsey journal here:

Use the navigation bar at the top of the page to return to Surtsey


Early Thoughts

The two churches of St Boniface (Isle of Wight) and St Wulfran (Sussex) both date from the 11th century. Whenever I visit one I am reminded of the other. Sensations of these places are dominated by the knowledge that I am in familiar company. A thousand years of history unite the two.

When in a landscape of definable geological time, similar feelings can connect one location with another. With this in mind I contemplate my visit to Surtsey. No parallel exists. It is younger than I and for this reason my approach is tentative.


19 July 2018  Genesis

Taking my first steps on Surtsey I look up to the sharp edged silhouette of rock that has been thrust before the backdrop of the evening sky. This new cut of land holds little by way of life but for that within the sky above. Beneath the call of flight the loose thread of land process and formation unfolds before me.


20 July 2018

From the interior of the hut the wind sounds through the shutters. Unrelenting rain falls on the fields of lava. Surtsey is held in cloud that covers the heights of palagonite. It is young rock darkened as it receives the rain. Away from these high places the spit points to the north where dark boulders sound within the collisions created from the sea waves. This young island has come into an old world and its struggle to survive is the story of each day.


21 July 2018

The black ravens of Surtungur's craters are the only birds that nest in this topography. Away from the gulls of the lower shore their flight takes them over the open lava channels and vents that release gases into the shadows of Vesturbunki. In Surtsey's brief existence this area of red rock has already become a place of omens. From the heights of Vesturbunki the sounds of wind and gull travel across the slopes of lava and palagonite. I stand and look down through the mist at a land surface that formed in living memory. During my childhood this would have been a place of wind and open sea that covered the calm and tranquility of a sea bed.

As I climb above the crater of Surtunger so heat thermals escape from the open fissures. The peak stands at five hundred feet and is shrouded in cloud, steam and mist. I sit upon the concrete base that forms a remnant of a temporary lighthouse. Heat rises through the stone step. The door has gone and the hatch to the upper level gapes to the open sky. A break in the mist reveals the island below. The slopes of palagonite slant down into a deep gulley that channels the loose material to the sea cutting a deep wound into the young rocks.

A distinctive tower of rock dominates these heights. The denuding force of wind and rain have fashioned this 'sentinel'. Clear lines of strata suggest a human order and it stands isolated from the shattered chaos of the scree and mudflow. Down from the heights I track towards the north spit. My walk takes me across a gentle incline of fragmented tephra where early growth of sea rocket lightens the dark surface and stabilises the shifting terrain.

The gulley washes vast amounts of tephra down the slopes and this spreads in a fan towards the larger boulders of the spit that have been rounded during their sea journey. Gulls fly overhead seemingly inquisitive of my slow meandering path. There are birds of prey here and I pick up the regurgitated remains of recent kills.

My walk in solitude on this young island takes me towards the extremity of the spit. Large boulders slow my progress but as I reach the point sea sounds rise within the surging tide.


22 July 2018

The day of departure. The moment the generator is turned off silence falls on the slopes and lava fields as we await the helicopter with eyes fixed on the northern horizon.

We rise sharply over the island. From height the young life of this island becomes apparent. Two craters puncture the surface and the force that created the land is etched in the lava trails and pulverised rock. As we continue to rise so the island shrinks into the distance held within the broad surfaces of the sea.

The Barra Journal July 2019

listen to John reading from his Barra journal here:

Use the navigation bar at the top of the page to return to Barra


On the approach to the island it is clear that it is a place of old rock rising to almost a thousand feet and the heights of Heaval. A string of islands and skerries trail southwards beyond Vatersay and include Sandray, Flodaigh, Lingeigh, Pabbay, Reismis, Mingulay and finally Berneray.

3 July 2019

The morning is grey and misty. A sea fog fills Castle Bay and the small islands are no longer visible. I hire a bicycle from the local community centre and begin a fifteen mile circuit of the island. The first impression as I take a clockwise journey from Castle Bay is that Barra has elements of an exhumed landscape, outer garments peeled away to expose the bones of old rock and the light of a new day.

The island has no dominant landform. Heaval can be seen clearly from Castle Bay but its heights become obscured from many other points of the island as sight lines become broken by the convexity of slopes. Unlike the 'sentinel' of Surtsey, Heaval's presence is fleeting.

There is comfort in these old geologies. A stable landscape removed from the fracture zones and shifting plates of the Earth’s crust. Hebridean lands have endured the test of time.

Once I reach Brevig on the southern section of the circuit so the steep slopes of Heaval return to view. From the road I can trace the most direct path to the top and I pencil this onto my map. It is a climb planned for Friday when the weather should be more favourable.


4 July 2019

With rain in the forecast I make an early start and head west towards the heights of Ben Tangaval. Leaving the road at Culnamuck I follow the coast towards the Iron Age settlement of Dun Ban.

The Machair consists of a fertile plain that produces a unique grassland of wild flowers and beyond this lies a light filled beach surrounded by a backdrop of dunes. I walk along the silver strand. It is a beach that only persistent salty winds and a full Atlantic fetch can produce. The roll of the waves and the high pitch of arctic tern accompany me as I walk.

Leaving the dunes I follow the coast and enter gentle rocky slopes. Overhead the gulls become agitated as I approach the nesting areas and follow a series of roughly constructed cairns that indicate the way and avoid the peat bogs or lochans.

The wind begins to strengthen and the sound of the ocean rises as I shelter by one of the larger cairns and look to the south east and the heights of Ben Tangaval. There are ancient settlements within these coastal hills that go back over eight thousand years to the Mesolithic period.

As I track the coast towards Doirlinn Head the evidence of Bronze Age burials can be discerned across the rocky slopes. These traces of old settlement have been absorbed into the old terrain and like that terrain have been subject to relentless denudation.

Unlike the scant fields of plant growth on Surtsey, Barra has a varied and mature ecosystem of wild flowers and grasses.

With the onset of spring the Machair becomes a brilliant carpet of fresh growth. Rough grassland provides less nutrients in its acidic soil but still supports clovers, vetches, red bartsia, sundews and butterworts.

With the northward migration of spring waves of colour show the isophenes that trace a floral coincidence and seasonal awareness that is not apparent on the young Surtsey.

Eventually I near the site of Dun Ban. The track cuts down between high walls of gneiss towards the sea where sheep graze upon the grass slopes as if just abandoned by the departure of the old community.

The sun breaks through the low cloud in a brief moment as I walk across the small 'field' that was central to this community and reach the cliff edge.

I look back across the field that lays serenely within the barren terrain. Little remains of the settlement but the choice of site was good.

A sense of reason lingers over the land which would have enjoyed shelter from the winds, a good topsoil and grass for livestock as well as access to the sea.

Climbing to the Dun I locate the surviving wall and what probably remains of the tower in the shape of a small circle or broch of boulders. I sit within this structure and immediately my battle with the wind is eased.

Inland the 'field' is in full view and the sheep have resettled. The stone built settlement had been built from local rock and for a time it formed a thin trace both fleeting and quite possibly glorious.

How small its existence now seems in the immensity of geological time.

The rain that was forecast eventually arrives and as I track back to Castle Bay, the topographical details of Ben Tangaval become obscured by low cloud.


In 2003 John Kelly was awarded a fellowship with British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to go to Antarctica.

This and the subsequent exhibition 'Due South' at the Natural History Museum set the work on landscape into a higher realm and was followed by a number of residencies in the High Arctic as well as a return to Antarctica in 2014 with the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI).

The work has focused upon landscape interpretation in a wide range of remote locations. In the Arctic this has resulted in contact with the Inupiat people and their struggle for survival in the harsh conditions of northern Alaska.

Recent work has focused upon 'Northland: Journeys into the Twilight' as a part imagined, part factual account of journeys in the Far North, using historical accounts as well as personal journals. This has involved a study of the Twilight phenomena and more recently a pursuit of our understanding of the sublime.

Following 'Two Islands'  field-based work is planned for Lindisfarne, Staffa and the Fuji area of Japan.