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 this 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 village of Ballysadare (pictured here). She had trained at the Slade School of Fine Art, and her paintings were displayed and sold in exhibitions in Ireland and the UK. She painted this portrait of seventeen-year old Lettice in 1915 (which can be seen on Art UK’s website here), when she was about to travel to England to board at Bedales, the progressive co-educational school in Hampshire. The painting suggests Lettice’s feelings of sadness at leaving her home in Ireland, and her determination to succeed.
Last year this beautiful portrait was extensively restored by conservator Polly Saltmarsh before being displayed at Cambridge University Library as part of its “Rising Tide” exhibition https://www.cam.ac.uk/TheRisingTide. The determined-looking girl in the painting went on to study moral sciences at Newnham College in Cambridge from 1918 until 1921, 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 Lettice Ramsey is still better known for her husband than for her contribution to 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 Baker was five years older than him and Newnham’s star student when they first met in 1920. It was at a meeting of the Cambridge Heretics society, where Lettice was Treasurer and Frank gazed at her, too shy to speak. He wrote in his diary that Miss Baker was “very beautiful and rather nice.”
They began a love affair in 1924, when he was a King’s fellow and she had returned to Cambridge to work at the University’s 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 Frank Ramsey in this episode of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking with Shahidha Bari – with a recording of Lettice’s voice halfway through. )
In 1932, Lettice Ramsey’s lover Julian Bell invited her to his family home at Charleston in Sussex to meet his parents, Vanessa and Clive Bell. There Ramsey took informal photographs of Virginia Woolf playing with her young niece Angelica Bell in the sunshine; Woolf in turn took a snap of Lettice standing in her summer dress and one of the distinctive necklaces she often wore, holding what looks like an early Leica camera (this photograph appears in Maggie Humm’s Snapshots of Bloomsbury). The National Portrait Gallery in London has several of these portraits, and in 2012 ran an exhibition called ‘The Bloomsbury Poet and the Cambridge Photographer: Julian Bell and Lettice Ramsey”.
The fact that her mother Frances Baker was able to earn a living through her painting may have contributed to Ramsey’s own conviction that she too could support her young family by combining her artistic and business skills. On a summer holiday in Dorset with her two daughters in 1932, she met Helen Muspratt, ten years her junior, who owned a small photographic studio in Swanage. It was a life-changing encounter for them both. In her excellent 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.[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 outhouse 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.” 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 by Muspratt, of Ramsey in the Cambridge studio here.
Lettice and Helen 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 Muspratt opened a separate studio in Oxford in 1937. “Helen had the know-how and I had the connections,” Ramsey modestly recalled of the period. 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 (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. 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 work). 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 (There is a 1935 portrait of Elanor Singer on Peter Loft’s website here.)
Ramsey & Muspratt gained an international reputation during this time, and featured regularly in Photography magazine. In 1936 the editor praised the duo 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… Miss Ramsey will tell you “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 like Lettice was her family’s main breadwinner, so after the war their experimental photography of the 1930s was abandoned for the “bread and butter” business of wedding and university photography. 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 previous 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 obtained another passport in which she described herself as “housewife” and coolly carried on taking photographs (“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 was unconcerned when she was accidentally locked in overnight. She reluctantly retired on her 80th birthday in 1978, and sold her Cambridge studio. She had hoped that it would continue as a working studio, Burch told me, but the next owner was not successful. He sold the studio and extensive archive to Peter Lofts who owns the copyright to almost all Ramsey & Muspratt’s photographs.
That year, the two women were photographed in their respective Oxford and Cambridge studios by John Lawrence-Jones for a Sunday Times 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 Sunday Times magazine featured a range of their most famous (and infamous) subjects.
Lettice Ramsey died in 1985, so did not live to see the recognition belatedly given to Ramsey & Muspratt’s achievements as women photographers. Their photographs featured in a Channel 4 programme, ‘Five Women Photographers’ in 1986, and Helen Muspratt’s work was highlighted 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 was not around to enjoy the excitement. “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 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)