A Cambridge photographer

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

The Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985) was, along with her photographic partner Helen Muspratt (1907-2001), one of the leading women photographers of the twentieth century. The women’s creative partnership began when they opened their first studio in Cambridge in 1932, and their joint business expanded to Oxford after Muspratt moved there following her marriage in 1937. After that they continued to run their two studios in Cambridge and Oxford until the late 1970s, and kept the name of their shared business (with its efficient ampersand) for both: Ramsey & Muspratt.

In 1987 Lettice Ramsey’s daughter Jane Burch donated many Ramsey & Muspratt portraits to the National Portrait Gallery in London, and in 2012 the NPG put on an exhibition about Ramsey’s friendship with Virginia Woolf’s nephew Julian Bell, ‘The Bloomsbury Poet and Cambridge Photographer.’ Lettice Ramsey’s 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.

Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries have recently secured Helen Muspratt’s photographic archive, and in 2021 put on a wonderful exhibition of her work (still available online): ‘Helen Muspratt Photographer’. As Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden comments in the accompanying video, by doing this they ‘put a flag in the sand’, to say that the history of photography, and Oxford University, needs to take Helen Muspratt’s photographic work seriously. Lettice Ramsey’s contribution to their lifelong professional partnership was downplayed in the Oxford exhibition: in the exhibition’s video, she is described as a sociable Cambridge widow ‘who needed something to do’. Yet Lettice Ramsey was a creative artist with a work ethic and brilliance that matched Muspratt’s, and she continued to work professionally almost until her death in 1985.

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

The Oxford exhibition downplays the important studio and developing room work that the women did collaboratively in Cambridge in the 1930s before they continued their work separately in both university cities from 1937 onwards. The fact that they worked so closely together on all aspects of their early photography is significant. It’s impossible to say which of the two women took their experimental solarised photographs (see NPG website here), as well as the portrait of Nobel prizewinner Dorothy Hodgkin above, 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 now be celebrated as the groundbreaking photographers and creative partnership that they were.

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 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.

See also my previous blogpost ‘Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985)). My own interest in 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 (see above) in the Cambridge University Library as part of their ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ exhibition of 2019-20. The painting is held in Newnham College’s collection.

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