A Cambridge photographer

Portrait of Lettice Ramsey by PAL Brunney, c.1970 (J Brunney family photographs)

I’m delighted that Frances Baker’s beautiful 1915 painting of her daughter Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985) features in Newnham College’s current ‘Newnham portraits’ online exhibition to mark the college’s 150 year celebrations. As I wrote in my blogpost ‘Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985) last year, ‘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.’

Along with her photographic partner Helen Muspratt (1907-2001), Ramsey was indeed one of the leading women photographers not just of the 1930s, but of the twentieth century. The women’s creative partnership began when they opened their first studio in Cambridge in 1932, and their business expanded to Oxford after Muspratt married and opened a studio there in 1937. My own interest in Lettice, and the Ramsey & Muspratt business, was sparked by seeing their luminous portrait of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who gained her PhD at Cambridge before taking up an academic appointment at Oxford. Ramsey & Muspratt’s portrait was displayed side by side with Frances Baker’s 1915 painting of Lettice Ramsey in the Cambridge University Library as part of their ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ exhibition of 2019-20.

Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries are to be congratulated in recently securing Helen Muspratt’s photographic archive, and last year put on an exhibition of her work. As Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden says, by doing this they have ‘put a flag in the sand’, to say that the history of photography, and the history of the city of Oxford, needs to take Muspratt seriously as a photographer.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Lettice Ramsey’s early contribution to their professional partnership, Ramsey & Muspratt, is downplayed in the Oxford exhibition: in the video on the Bodleian’s website, Ramsey is described as a sociable Cambridge widow ‘who needed something to do’ rather than a creative artist with a work ethic and brilliance that matched Muspratt’s. Oxford’s understandable wish to claim Muspratt as one of their own overlooks the studio and developing room work that the women did collaboratively in Cambridge in the 1930s and 1940s before they continued their work separately in both university cities from the 1940s onwards.

After all, it’s impossible to say which of the two photographers took their acclaimed solarised photographs, as well as the aforementioned portrait of Nobel prizewinner Hodgkin (see below), because all of their portraits of the time were signed democratically as Ramsey & Muspratt. Both women considered their work in the darkroom to be as important a part of their artistic process as what they did behind the camera; and both women should be equally acknowledged as the groundbreaking photographers and creative partnership that they were.

Dorothy Hodgkin, by Ramsey & Muspratt, bromide print, circa 1937; NPG P363(13)

In 1987 Ramsey’s daughter Jane Burch donated many Ramsey & Muspratt portraits to the National Portrait Gallery in London, and in 2012 the gallery put on an exhibition about Ramsey’s friendship with Julian Bell. But Lettice Ramsey deserves to be be celebrated not just for her associations with the Bloomsbury Group, but in her own right as a pioneering Cambridge photographer. Her portraits of Virginia Woolf, the ‘Cambridge Spies’ and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are reproduced all over the world, yet she herself remains comparatively unknown.

The original glass plates and prints that Ramsey stored in her Post Office Terrace studio remain in private ownership, and their future is uncertain. It would be wonderful if Cambridge’s University Library followed in the footsteps of the Bodleian and secured this unique archive for the nation, as it did with the Stephen Hawking archive recently. Then the great twentieth-century photographer Lettice Ramsey might at last be given the recognition – and the Cambridge exhibition – that she deserves.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 3 August 2021, all rights reserved

1915 portrait of Lettice Ramsey (née Baker) by Frances Baker © Newnham College, reproduced with kind permission of Newnham College.

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