A young woman wearing a red blouse leans against a balcony railing. Her head is tilted and her brown eyes are pensive, and there’s something resolute about her expression. In the background is a landscape that has become familiar to viewers of last year’s BBC drama series Normal People: the light-filled west of Ireland coastline. As a small child Lettice Ramsey’s English parents moved to Rosses Point estuary in County Sligo where her father Cecil managed an oyster farm. When he died suddenly, her mother Frances Baker took her two young daughters a few miles south to live in the town of Ballysadare. Baker had trained with Gwen Raverat at the Slade School of Fine Art, and she opened a small shop in the town; her paintings were also displayed and sold in exhibitions in Ireland and the UK. She painted this portrait of here seventeen-year-old daughter in 1915, when Lettice was about to travel to England to board at Bedales, the progressive co-educational school in Hampshire, before going on to study at Newnham College, Cambridge.
This beautiful portrait, which now belongs to Newnham, seems to suggest Lettice’s feelings of sadness at leaving her home in Ireland, and her determination to succeed. In 2019 it was extensively restored by conservator Polly Saltmarsh before being displayed at Cambridge University Library as part of its 2019-2020 “Rising Tide” exhibition. The determined-looking girl in the painting studied moral sciences at Newnham from 1918 until 1921, worked in Cambridge University’s first Psychological Laboratory and would later pick up a camera to become one of the leading women photographers of the 1930s.
Yet it’s probably fair to say that these days Lettice Ramsey might be still better known for her famous husband than for her pioneering contribution to portrait photography. Frank Ramsey was the brilliant mathematician, philosopher and economist who, as an eighteen-year-old student at King’s College Cambridge, helped to translate Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus into English in 1921. Lettice (née Baker) was five years older than him and Newnham’s star student when they first met in 1920 at a meeting of the Cambridge Heretics society, where she was Treasurer. Frank gazed at her, too overawed to speak. He wrote in his diary that Miss Baker was “very beautiful and rather nice.”
They began their love affair in 1924, when he was a King’s fellow and she had returned to Cambridge to work at the Psychological Laboratory. They married in August 1925, had two daughters and a relationship that was happy if unconventional (neither believed that love meant exclusivity, and Lettice thought jealousy about sexual matters was reprehensible). Tragically, Frank died of liver disease in 1930, aged just twenty-seven. Cheryl Misak, the author of a new biography Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers (OUP 2020) is convinced that he caught Weil’s disease while swimming in the River Cam in what was an unusually warm October. There’s an excellent discussion about Ramsey’s life and work in this episode of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking with Shahidha Bari and Cheryl Misak – and it has a delightful recording of Lettice’s voice halfway through.
After Frank’s death, Lettice Ramsey was left to bring up their two daughters alone. In 1932, her then lover Julian Bell invited her to his family home at Charleston in Sussex to meet his parents, Vanessa and Clive Bell. Ramsey brought along her new portable camera and took informal snaps of Virginia Woolf playing with her young niece Angelica Bell in the sunshine; Woolf in turn took a photograph of Lettice standing in her summer dress and one of the distinctive necklaces she often wore, holding what looks like an early Leica camera (see Maggie Humm’s Snapshots of Bloomsbury, 2005). The National Portrait Gallery in London has most of these portraits, and in 2012 put on an exhibition of a selection of them.
On a summer holiday in Dorset with her daughters later in 1932 Lettice met Helen Muspratt, ten years her junior, who owned a small photographic studio in Swanage. It was a life-changing meeting for them both, and may have given Ramsey an idea. Her own mother Frances Baker had earned a living as a single parent in Ireland by selling her paintings; perhaps Ramsey too could support her young family by combining her own artistic and business skills. In her book Face: Shape and Angle (2016), Helen Muspratt’s daughter Jessica Sutcliffe describes how Ramsey, almost on the spur of the moment, asked Muspratt to join her on a new venture. The photographic studio of ‘Ramsey & Muspratt’ (note the ampersand) opened on St Andrews Street in Cambridge later that year. The owner of their main professional rival, Palmer Clark, the town’s photographer since 1867, predicted that “those two ladies won’t last six months.” But Ramsey & Muspratt was so successful that after a couple of years Lettice and Helen bought Palmer Clark’s studio on Post Office Terrace for £600 and established their own premises there.[i]
The two women turned what was little more than a collection of old sheds in an overgrown yard into a purpose-built studio and shop, while the various outhouses were using for developing and printing. Lettice asked her friend Wittgenstein for advice on painting the studio’s woodwork, as he had helped to design his sister’s house in Vienna in 1925. “If it is good paint it white,” he told her. “If it is bad paint it black.” Thanks to his advice, Ramsey and Muspratt’s studio became a stylishly modern space. In 1937 a student journalist in Cambridge’s Granta magazine said it was “like one of René Claire amid Paris rooftops” which reflected Lettice Ramsey’s personal style. “Hers is the photography of originality… She does not need the old-fashioned curtained room, heavy arc lamps and elaborate watch-for-the-dickybird camera.” [ii] There is a rare photograph, probably taken by Helen Muspratt, of Ramsey in the Cambridge studio here.
Ramsey and Muspratt worked as an equal partnership, and as Granta wrote, “They prefer to take people naturally” taking turns to work in the studio and the darkroom. They always signed their portraits democratically as “Ramsey & Muspratt” even after Helen opened her own separate studio in Oxford in 1937. “Helen had the know-how and I had the connections,” Ramsey modestly recalled of her fashionable Bloomsbury set. Throughout the 1930s many of the undergraduates photographed by Ramsey and Muspratt in Cambridge and Oxford would become very well known: Dorothy Hodgkin who in 1964 won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (she is still the only British woman scientist to be awarded a Nobel) and Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who would later become infamous as Soviet spies. In 1932 Lettice Ramsey photographed the ‘Apostles‘, including Sir Anthony Blunt. “All intellectuals in Cambridge were Communists at the time”, Ramsey recalled. “We had great hopes, but then were gradually let down.”[iii]
Many of these portraits are now in the National Portrait Gallery’s extensive Ramsey & Muspratt collection, which can be seen here. From the beginning, both women were also keen to push the boundaries of photography as an art form, and were fascinated by Man Ray’s photographic experiments (it seems they were unaware of Lee Miller’s similar work during this period). They discussed solarisation techniques in the studio’s darkroom with their Cambridge scientist friend, J.D. Bernal, and experimented with different styles, as Sutcliffe describes in her book. Their 1935 portrait of Eleanor Singer shows how imaginative their collaboration was (on Peter Loft’s website here).
Ramsey & Muspratt gained an international reputation during this time, and featured regularly in Photography magazine, whose editor praised the duo in 1936 for not following the lucrative route of becoming London society photographers: “Though they are too modest to claim it for themselves, Ramsey & Muspratt hold an important place in photography. For they are forcing the new idea, the modern spirit to the fore”. As Ramsey told him, “We are fortunate in having Cambridge as a field, as we get a lot of young people to photograph: undergraduates, who like experimenting in light and treatment.”[iv]
Helen Muspratt and Lettice Ramsey had a close friendship that lasted a lifetime, across two university cities, that continued long after their professional association ended in 1947. After Muspratt married and settled in Oxford, she was also her family’s main breadwinner, so their experimental photography of the 1930s was abandoned for the “bread and butter” business of wedding and university photography after the war. This might explain why Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes so disliked their 1956 “official” wedding photos taken by Ramsey, which Plath complained resembled “passport shots without imagination or sensitive lighting” (see my blog post here.)
In the 1960s Lettice Ramsey often returned to the west of Ireland, where this photograph was taken (a rare appearance – she was usually behind the camera, her grandson Stephen Burch recalls). “We had a number of family holidays there in the 1960s, the first of which in 1963 marked the start of my interest in birding” Burch writes. A selection of Ramsey & Muspratt portraits and family photographs, along with other information, features on his website here.
In 1969, at the age of 71, Lettice Ramsey took her camera to Phnom Penn and Siem Reap, unconcerned about the threat of war in Cambodia. When she was forbidden to enter the country as a professional photographer, she simply obtained another passport in which she described herself as a housewife and carried on taking photographs undaunted (“I took hundreds,” she told friends). A year later, she climbed the scaffolding on King’s College Chapel to photograph the stained glass windows, and remained unconcerned when she was accidentally locked in overnight.
Lettice Ramsey reluctantly retired on her 80th birthday in 1978, and sold her Cambridge studio. She had hoped that it would continue as a working studio, her grandson told me, but the next owner’s business was not successful, and he sold the studio and extensive archive of photographic plates to Peter Lofts (who now owns the copyright to almost all Ramsey & Muspratt’s photographs). In 1978 the two women were photographed in their respective Oxford and Cambridge studios by John Lawrence-Jones for a Sunday Times magazine article called ‘The Photographers of Golden Youth’ by Francis Wyndham. This was the first time since the 1930s that their work had been recognized in the national media, and the magazine featured a range of their most famous (and infamous) subjects.
Lettice Ramsey died in 1985, so she did not live to see the recognition belatedly given to Ramsey & Muspratt’s achievements as women photographers: a selection of Helen Muspratt’s photographs were exhibited at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries in 2020. Their photographs also featured in a Channel 4 programme, ‘Five Women Photographers’ in 1986 when Muspratt’s work featured in a major exhibition at the Bradford Museum of Film and Photography, reassessing the work of 20th-century female photographers, which toured the country for two years. In 2015 the portrait photographer Jane Bown went to Dorset to take Muspratt’s photograph for the Observer. It was a shame, as Jessica Sutcliffe writes, that Lettice Ramsey was not around to enjoy their renewed fame. “She, of all people, would have enjoyed the attention, appreciation, and, most of all, the accompanying parties”.
©Ann Kennedy Smith 3 July 2020 (all rights reserved)
[i] Jessica Sutcliffe Face: Shape and Angle, Helen Muspratt Photographer (Manchester University Press, 2016), p.50.
[ii] Quoted in Sutcliffe, p.50.
[iii] Quoted in Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert Guy Burgess: the spy who knew everyone (2016)
[iv] January 1936: quoted in Sutcliffe, p.63.
SOURCES: My warm thanks to Stephen Burch, Laura Dennis, Maggie Humm, Peter Lofts, Sara Rawlinson and Polly Saltmarsh. Thanks also to my helpful Twitter contacts in tracking down Lettice Ramsey information: Paul Bird @singleaspect; Dr Barbara @adoptanovel; and ArtUK’s Julia Abel Smith @jabelsmith.
Stephen Burch’s website ‘Stephen Burch’s Birding and Dragonfly website’
Peter Lofts’ ‘Lofty Images’ website, with many restored Ramsey & Muspratt prints available for sale
Jan Marsh, ‘ Pioneering photographer who made her mark in naturalistic portraiture and social documentary’. Obituary of Helen Muspratt, Guardian, 11 Aug 2001
Guardian photo essay: ‘Helen Muspratt: the camera of a communist radical’
Jean Mc Nicol ‘All this love business’ London Review of Books, January 2013
Cheryl Misak Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers (OUP 2020)
“Mrs. Lettice Ramsey.” Obit. The Times (30 July 1985): 12.
Sara Rawlinson, photographer, who last year went on a cherry-picker to take photos of King’s College chapel: see online photography exhibition
Polly Saltmarsh, Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation
Frances Spalding Vanessa Bell: Portrait of the Bloomsbury artist (Tauris Parke, 2018)
Charles Saumaurez Smith writes about his family’s Ramsey & Muspratt collection on his blog here
Jessica Sutcliffe Face: Shape and Angle, Helen Muspratt Photographer (Manchester University Press, 2016)