Through the lens of Jersey’s Renaissance Man

Arthur Mourant’s photo collection puts a pioneering career into focus

If an individual were the pioneer behind lifesaving genetic research, it would be understandable for you to assume that their talents must only lie in that area of expertise. But this was not the case for Jersey’s true Renaissance Man, Arthur Mourant (1904-1994), whose talents ranged from medicine, genetics, chemistry, and haematology to geology, archaeology and also photography.

The Jersey-born scientist’s 1954 publication ‘Distribution of Human Blood Groups’ mapped what was known at the time about genetic frequencies in blood groups globally. His research led to the prevention and treatment of haemolytic disease in new-borns, which subsequently has saved thousands of lives.

Whilst he considered himself a staunch man of science, his collection of photographs – containing some 15,000 images – also speak to the man behind the research: his life, his loved ones and, front and centre, his Island home of Jersey.

I sat down with Rochelle, one of the Archivists at the Société Jersiaise’s Photo Archive, to find out more about this astonishing collection of photographs which Mourant took throughout his life.

In addition to Mourant’s revolutionary career in the field of genetics, Rochelle says that he was also fascinated by other disciplines: “He was a geology fanatic and assisted in much of the geological and archaeological research of Jersey throughout the 20th century. During his years in education, he embarked on various research projects during his time studying at college and at university in the 1930’s where he wrote his doctoral thesis exploring Precambrian volcanic rock of the Channel Islands in comparison with the surrounding French geology.”

In fact, Rochelle explains, some of his work depicting the various types of rock around the Island is currently on display in the Société Members’ Room. And that’s not the only evidence of Mourant’s legacy at the Société, there’s also a statue depicting him, and a meeting room named after him.

But that’s not all, in his youth, Mourant was also involved in the 1924 La Hougue Bie excavation through his colleague Dr Robert Ranulph Marett. This was the excavation where the iconic Neolithic passage was found within the mound.

With such breadth to his accolades, Rochelle adds that she has “found it’s easy to get lost in his research.”

Speaking about his legacy, Rochelle said: “Although incredibly well travelled, he was a stark Jerseyman with much of his photography centring around the Island and the people who live here. With his ground-breaking research and passion for the sciences I’d say he’s an absolute pioneer of his time.”

Mourant’s photographic collection was donated to the Société following his death in 1994. His early glass plate negatives were digitized in 2021, this year the SJPA have taken on the momentous task of arranging and digitising the remaining 15,000 or so of his photographs.

Speaking about the contents of the vast collection, Rochelle said that “the subject matter goes from geology, archaeology to work-related material picturing staff working in labs around the world.”

Having worked closely with Mourant’s photographs, Rochelle describes his subject matter as being “anything that interested him” – and, with someone as intelligent and curious as Mourant, this encapsulated a great many things.

For example, Rochelle says that the collection contains “about 500 aerial photographs from all of his travels depicting beautiful cloud displays and rich sunsets over silhouette cities.”

The Société photo archivist continues: “Although he notes in his autobiography his disinterest in the arts, I’d like to think he has a natural creative flair, you can see amongst the abstract photographs of rock samples, he’s drawn to visually stunning subject matter, I’d liken the chemistry and photographical processes in his work to a painter and his canvas.”

Speaking about the techniques Mourant employed as a photographer, Rochelle said: “First and foremost, his collection is a brilliant example of 20th century analogue photography. What really stood out to me was the variety in type of photographical material he has produced, from glass plate negatives, cellulose based 35mm and early film, colour chrome transparencies and even more experimental types, for example cyanotype and microphotography.”

So, when he returned from his great many travels, how did Mourant portray his Island home of Jersey?

Rochelle would say that it was the human aspect of the Island that seems to pervade his photos of Jersey. She says: “Aside from photographs he produced to supplement his research, it was the people in his life; there are lots of stunning pictures of his relatives smiling, having fun, candid pictures captured off guard.

“Don’t get me wrong there are lovely depictions of the Jersey coast and countryside; the beautiful cottage he grew up in, and the nature and geology of the Island, but I think it was the community and the people in it that played a big influence.”

And when Rochelle was asked to pick her favourite image from the Mourant collection, she initially struggled, saying that “it’s so hard to pick just one”, but she eventually settled on a picture that Mourant took of his brother holding a bird.

Commenting on why she chose this one, Rochelle says “it’s just an incredibly charming and heart-warming photograph.”

Rochelle says that being part of the team preserving and making this collection accessible to the public for the first time makes her feel “honoured and extremely lucky” and she says that the Archive are always on the lookout for further support.

“The Photo Archive is always looking for volunteers! As the project develops, we will certainly be on the search for budding individuals who can assist on cataloguing and rehousing the collection. It will be an interesting look into a fascinating photographical collection not yet available to the public, plus there is always tea and biscuits!”

And if you’re interested in finding out more about Arthur Mourant and his incredible life, Rochelle recommends his autobiography ‘Blood and Stones’. She says: “It’s a short and interesting read that goes into a lot of detail about his life’s work, as well as his stance on various topics such as being brought up in a religious family and his experiences from the Second World War.

“I think his story will resonate with many likeminded and inquisitive researchers.”

To find out more about the Société Photo Archive, or to express an interest in volunteering for the department, click here.

Written by Martha MacDonald

In this series, Freelance Writer Martha MacDonald will delve into the archives and meet with the researchers, sample the Sections and celebrate all that the Société brings to our Island.