William John Alexander Grant (1851–1935)

William John Alexander (Johnny) Grant of Hillersdon House, Cullompton, Devon, was born on 1 May 1851.

He was the son of William Charles Grant, former cornet of the King’s Dragoon Guards and later Justice of the Peace, and a great-nephew of Sir William Grant, who was Master of the Rolls from 1810 to 1818.

In 1866-70, Grant was educated at Harrow, and from there he went to Merton College, Oxford. During this period, he learned the art of photography. He had sufficient financial resources to practice it for many years afterwards. Besides his board and lodging and sometimes a token wage, he received no income from his trips north.

William Grant explores the Arctic

In 1876, at the age of 25, Grant sailed with Sir Allen Young on the ship Pandora. The aim of this privately financed voyage was to reach the Magnetic North Pole and then to navigate the Northwest Passage (Canadian Arctic). Young also hoped to find further traces of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition. Afterwards, Grant and the officers of the expedition were awarded the Arctic Medal.

In the following years, Grant joined the Dutch schooner Willem Barents, and the British yachts Eira and Kara on voyages to the Arctic.

Grant the photographer

From 1877 onward, he exhibited his photographs of the Arctic at the Royal Photographic Society in London. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and the Royal Geographic Society. Apparently, Grant lost interest in the Arctic after 1884, but he continued to travel. His Dutch expedition photographs are held at the Maritime Museum, Rotterdam.

According to his obituary in The Times, ‘he had thrilled in every outpost of the empire and beyond’ (11 March 1935). More specifically, he visited Egypt in 1894, and, shortly before his death, made a thousand-mile voyage up the Amazon River. No photographs of his post-Arctic period are known. Grant resigned his fellowship of the Photographic Society in 1886 and gave up photography.

In the last years of his life, Grant suffered ill-health. He died, 83 years old, at Hillersdon House on 10 March 1935. Two years earlier, he had his tombstone and coffin made, and he kept them in a barn close to his home.

Grant’s collections at RAMM

William Grant bequeathed a small collection of items to the museum in 1880. they included ethnographic artefacts and natural history specimens. The Inuit sealskin inner boots are displayed in the Americas gallery.