Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985)


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

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.)

Family photograph of Lettice Ramsey in the 1960s, with kind permission of Stephen Burch. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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)

The wedding photos: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Lettice Ramsey (part 2)

Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, first published in 1993, is a brilliantly written, forensic investigation into biography and the literary legacy of the poet Sylvia Plath. In February 2020 Granta Books reissued this classic, with a striking new cover designed by Luke Bird. A photograph of Plath and Hughes, in three-quarters profile, has been drenched in a dark red that stands out vividly against the cover’s cream background. “The intention is absolutely that is shocking,” Bird explains. “It goes back to that idea of referencing the tragedy in the marriage, and in Plath’s life.”  His design conjures up what he describes as “a sense of dissonance, unravelling, the silent” in the lives of Plath and Hughes. The portrait is a fitting image for Janet Malcolm’s book that takes as its subject the bitter aftermath of Plath’s suicide in 1963. Although the original picture was taken to mark their wedding in 1956, when Plath and Hughes were at their happiest, it remained hidden away for over fifty years in a Cambridge studio. This blogpost is about the photograph. My next post (which follows shortly) will be about the photographer Lettice Ramsey and her extraordinary creative partnership with Helen Muspratt.

The photograph

Photograph of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Lettice Ramsey, © Peter Lofts Photography. Used with permission of Peter Lofts Photography. Not to be reproduced without permission.

On a mild winter’s day in early December 1956, six months after they had married, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes went to the studio of Ramsey & Muspratt in Cambridge to have their wedding photo taken. It seems that this was Aurelia Plath’s idea. She had sent Sylvia money to pay for a portrait that would be suitable to send out to American friends and family, who would have read about the marriage in a notice she had put in the newspaper not long before. The picture would be a way of making the wedding a reality, a visual proof of her daughter’s new domesticity .

A couple of weeks after the studio session, the weather in Cambridge had turned bitterly cold. It would be a white Christmas that year, the first that Plath and Hughes would spend together in their rented flat on Eltisley Avenue, which was kept warm with a coal fire in the sitting room. Sylvia’s mother had sent them early Christmas gifts, including a package of cookies that Ted couldn’t resist opening straightaway. “We bought themselves a huge cutting knife for bread & meat and a great Shorter Oxford Dictionary, which is now our favorite book— for our own Christmas presents” Sylvia told Aurelia. Less welcome for the couple was an invoice from the photographer Lettice Ramsey, with a contact sheet for them to choose four photos out of the set of thirteen pictures she had taken.

The problem was that Plath and Hughes hated all of them, as Sylvia explained to her mother, enclosing a few of the “grisly proofs” with her Christmas card.

It’s true that these photos present a very different atmosphere from the exuberant word-picture Plath painted of their June wedding (which I wrote about in my previous post). Then, with only Sylvia’s mother and the curate present as witnesses, Plath and Hughes exchanged their vows in a gloomy London church as the summer rain poured down outside. No special thought was given to their clothes that day. Hughes wore his ancient corduoroy jacket (“thrice dyed black, exhausted”) and Plath wore a pink knitted dress given by her mother as Hughes later recalled in this poem from Birthday Letters, remembering her tears of joy.

Tell me which one or two numbers, if any, you want made up — it’s part of the sitting price, four pictures, so you might as well have something while waiting for the rest if we can get a good one… [Unless] you want one with hands, I should think we could have the knotted monstrosities cut off & the picture shortened to head & shoulders.

Even without the offending ‘monstrous’ hands, there is a rather strained and artificial atmosphere about most of these photos. (A selection can be seen on Peter Lofts’ website here.) It was disappointing after all the effort they had gone to, not to mention the expense, but Plath promised her mother that they would have a better portrait taken soon.

In the black and white – and grey – studio photos taken in Cambridge in December there is little of this spontaneity or warmth. Both Hughes and Plath are smartly turned out: Hughes is wearing a new tweed jacket, presumably purchased for his job as a teacher which had started a few weeks before, and his hair is neatly combed back. Plath wears what looks like the same pink knitted dress that she wore in June (although we can’t be sure), and her hair is held back with a bandeau, possibly the pink ribbon she wore on her wedding day.

They both seem ill at ease with the idea of posing for such a conventional portrait, presumably taken at Aurelia Plath’s request. Plath’s smile is hesitant, while Hughes looks grim, and reluctant to be there at all.  The photo represented nothing about the relationship they had, and everything about putting on a show for the benefit of American friends. It’s in a very different style to Ramsey’s celebrated, intensely romantic double portrait of John Cornford and Rachel ‘Ray’ Peters in 1934.

When Sylvia sent the proofs to her mother, she tried to sound cheerful about the prospect of wedding presents, but wrote “I shudder to think of items like pots & pans, sheets, towels, blankets & silver ware”. Both Plath and Hughes knew that how they lived and worked from then on would be the business of those who had paid for their pots and pans.

Aurelia Plath must have sensed this uneasiness too, because it seems that copies of the wedding photos were never made up. The glass plates remained in Lettice Ramsey’s Cambridge studio until it closed in 1978 and the originals were sold on to Peter Lofts. In 2013 the Plath scholar Gail Crowther spotted one of the images online, and contacted the studio’s current owner, Peter Lofts, for permission to publish them in an article she wrote with Peter K. Steinberg about Plath’s archives.

When she describes how she discovered the photos, Crowther quotes the French philosopher Roland Barthes, who in Camera Lucida (1980) wrote:

When we define the photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.

It’s an apt description of how trapped and uneasy Plath and Hughes both look in this semi-official wedding portrait that Lettice Ramsey took in 1956. “Photography,” Barthes states, “has something to do with resurrection.” Now this unloved – but prescient – image has been resurrected in Luke Bird’s design for Granta Books, and speaks through the pages of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 24 June 2020 (all rights reserved)

My thanks to Luke Bird and Lamorna Elmer of Granta Books, and to Di Beddow, Peter Lofts, Chris Murray and Gail Crowther (any remaining errors are my own). See also my following post, ‘Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985)’

SOURCES

Di Beddow, ‘“That was our place.” – The Cambridge of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’ (British Library blogpost, consulted 24 June 2020)

Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg, These Ghostly Archives: The unearthing of Sylvia Plath (Fonthill, 2017)

Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963, selected and edited with commentary by Aurelia Schober Plath (Faber & Faber, 1975)

Sylvia Plath,  The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volumes 1 & 2, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (Faber & Faber, 2017 and 2018)


The wedding photos: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Lettice Ramsey (part 1)


Photograph of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Lettice Ramsey, © Peter Lofts Photography. Used with permission of Peter Lofts Photography. Not to be reproduced without permission.

A blogpost about the Bloomsday wedding of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in 1956, and the “official” wedding photos taken six months later by Lettice Ramsey, of the Cambridge and Oxford photographic studio ‘Ramsey & Muspratt’. Part 2 is about why these unloved portraits were hidden away for over 50 years. A related post about Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramsey will follow, with a full list of sources and acknowledgements.

It poured with rain on 16 June 1956, the day that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes got married at St George’s Holborn in London. Plath and Hughes chose Bloomsday to honour the date that James Joyce first walked out with Nora Barnacle in 1904, and later set his novel Ulysses (1922). For Plath, even the damp weather increased the romantic literary associations that made her wedding so wonderful. She describes  “standing with the rain pouring outside in that dim little church saying the most beautiful words in the world as our vows, with the curate as second witness and the dear Reverend, an old, bright-eyed man (who lives right opposite Charles Dickens’ house!) kissing my cheek, and the tears falling down from my eyes like rain – I was so happy with my dear, lovely Ted.”

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had first met in Cambridge just four months before, at a party to celebrate the first issue of the student literary journal St. Botolph’s Review. Plath was a second-year student on a Fulbright scholarship at Newnham College while Hughes, a former Pembroke student, was doing various jobs in London to make ends meet while trying to get his poems published. They had discussed moving to America together and getting university teaching jobs after she finished her degree, but getting married before then was out of the question.  

Everything changed within hours of Plath’s mother Aurelia arriving in England on 13 June 1956. Over supper it was decided: the wedding would take place while she was in London. During the next two days Plath and Hughes got a special (expensive) licence (“from the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less”, as she told her brother Warren) and dashed around the shops with Aurelia to buy gold rings and new shoes and trousers for Hughes. There was no time to try on wedding dresses, and very little money left over, but fortunately Aurelia had packed in her suitcase exactly the right thing: “a lovely pink knitted suit dress”, which “intuitively” she had never worn herself, Sylvia told Warren. So that was what she wore on her wedding day, with “a pink hair ribbon and a pink rose from Ted”, while he, over his smart new clothes, wore his battered old black corduroy jacket.

“Our only sorrow was that you weren’t there,” she told her brother two days later. Her letter brims with with such happiness and excitement, it’s hard to believe she felt any sorrow at all. But their marriage was “a huge and miraculous secret”, she warned him. No one outside the family must know about it. She and Ted were both “poverty-stricken” and worried that, if word got out, she might lose her funding and earn the disapproval of Newnham (“the Victorian virgins wouldn’t see how I could concentrate on my studies with being married to such a handsome virile man, the Fulbright, etc., etc.”). So they planned to live apart until June 1957, when they would have another wedding at the Plath family’s Unitarian Church in Wellesley, followed by “a huge reception for all our friends and relations who will be informed this fall that Ted and I are engaged”.  

But their carefully planned, fictional version of that academic year – advised closely by Aurelia – did not last past October 1956. Plath and Hughes felt miserable about not being able to live together, and decided that they would take the risk of telling the authorities that they were married. Writing from Cambridge to her mother in Wellesley, Plath skitters between hesitancy and resolution. One day she suggests that her mother could tell friends and relations in America “Ted got a job in London and we felt it ridiculous not to get married here and now” and appeals for guidance: “Do help me through this with advice and opinions.” The following day she tells Aurelia firmly: “We are married and it is impossible for either of us to be whole or healthy apart”.

External events in October 1956 might have helped to Plath to resolve what she called her “private crisis” without her mother’s assistance. On 1 November she wrote to Aurelia about “the huge crisis aroused by Britain’s incredible and insane bombing of Egypt”. Reading in The Guardian about the conflict over the Suez Canal made Plath boil with anger.  “The British arrogance – that old, smug, commercial colonialism – alive still among the Tories, seems inexcusable to me.” Rather than following a carefully choreographed pattern to please her mother and her friends, Plath decided to live the life she wanted.

Once she was honest about her marriage, the crisis was resolved quickly. Her college tutor Dorothea Krook-Gilead turned out not to be the prudish ogre that she had feared, and the Fulbright Commission were positively encouraging. Plath and Hughes’ money worries eased slightly when Hughes got a job teaching at a boys’ school in Cambridge (Coleridge Secondary Modern School for Boys on Radegund Road, which later combined with the girls’ school to become Coleridge Community College). He found a flat at 55 Eltisley Avenue, near Grantchester Meadows in Newnham village, where they would live together after Plath’s term ended.

With the marriage no longer a secret, Plath becomes matter-of-fact with her mother about practical arrangements. “Item: Do write “married recently” in our marriage announcement and say after December 7 ‘the couple will be at home at 55 Eltisley Avenue, Cambridge, England.’ I’d rather not even have a politic untruth in print about the date.” She discusses where wedding gifts “of a bulky or house-furnishing nature” can be sent. The sensible tone could hardly be more different from how she felt on Bloomsday, almost six months previously. “Thanks for the money,” she tells Aurelia briskly towards the end of November, “we’ll have a good picture taken this vacation, you may be sure”.

Plath was pleasing her mother by having a set of studio photographs taken of herself and Ted Hughes, so that Aurelia would have something to show her friends. There would be no grand wedding reception to impress them with, but at least there would be a set of commemorative photographs taken by the prestigious English firm of Ramsey & Muspratt. Aurelia Plath had paid for the best, but that did not mean that Plath or Hughes would be happy about them.

On 20 December 1956, Plath sent her mother a Christmas card along with samples of the photographs.

Well, here are enclosed a few of the best of the grisly proofs; Ted and I really don’t like them, considering ourselves much more beautiful — these are more like passport shots without imagination or sensitive lighting; in fact Ted hates them all. But I am sending them on to you until we have something better done, which we will do soon — this lady was an expensive crook.   

Lettice Ramsey – the woman that Plath described as “an expensive crook” – ran the Cambridge studio of the successful photographic partnership ‘Ramsey & Muspratt’ from 1932 until 1978. Her professional partner Helen Muspratt worked from their Oxford studio. Sixty of their relaxed and perceptive portraits dating mainly from the 1930s and 1940s, including of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Circle, are in the National Portrait Gallery (see the NPG collection here). Helen Muspratt, famous for her experimental solarisation techniques, once said that for all their celebrated portraits, weddings were Ramsey & Muspratt’s bread-and-butter work.

“I had a rule: four minutes by the church clock,” she said. “Wedding photos are easily spoiled by keeping the couple posing far too long.”

In Part 2 I say more about this “wedding” photograph of Plath and Hughes, and why it features on the cover of the recent reissue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (Granta, 2020).

©Ann Kennedy Smith 16 June 2020 (all rights reserved)

The honest biographer

My latest essay for the Dublin Review of Books is about the American biographer Deirdre Bair, who did her best to write an honest and thoroughly researched biography of Samuel Beckett in the 1970s. Although Beckett promised neither to ‘help nor hinder’ her work, there were plenty of others in his circle and in the academic world who put obstacles in her way, before and after her book was published.

In her memoir Parisian Lives, published by Atlantic Books in 2020, and shortlisted for the Pulitzer prize in biography, Deirdre Bair gives an account of the beginnings of her career as biographer, and the crimes of sexism and academic snobbery that she had to endure. It’s a fascinating account and a testament to Bair’s endurance and over forty years of success as a biographer. My take on how she dared to write the first biography of Samuel Beckett, and seven years later movingly discovered that ‘his word was indeed his bond’, is here:

https://www.drb.ie/essays/the-hhard-life

‘The Other Eglantyne’, by Carolyn Ferguson

I’m delighted that Carolyn Ferguson has contributed a second blogpost, linked to her Masters’ Wives quilt post last month. Her article below introduces us to one of the women who may have contributed to, and certainly influenced, this important Cambridge textile from 1892. Eglantyne Louisa ‘Tye’ Jebb (1845-1925) is less famous than her namesake daughter, the founder of Save the Children Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928), but Carolyn Ferguson makes the case that her contribution to the Arts and Crafts movement should be better known.

Screenshot-2020-04-24-at-21.44.22-300x297

Copper weathervane in the form of a cockerel from the chapel of Mill Road cemetery. Photograph credit: Peter Nixon, reproduced by kind permission of the Museum of Cambridge.

In August 1874 Caroline Slemmer and Richard Jebb went from Cambridge to Shropshire for their wedding. She described their arrival as ‘just like the novels we read of English life … none of the places in novels are near the station and no more was ours’[1]. There was a cart to take the boxes and a carriage with liveried coachman and footman to take the couple through miles of romantic countryside to an avenue of trees which lead to ‘The Lyth’, the home of Richard’s sister Eglantine Louisa and her husband Arthur Jebb. This then was Caroline’s introduction to the wider Jebb family. This post looks at the work of Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, Caroline’s sister-in-law, whose important influence in the world of Arts and Crafts largely goes unnoticed.

Eglantyne Louisa Jebb (1845-1925), known to her family as ‘Tye’ or ‘Tiny’ was an Irishwoman from Killiney who had married a distant cousin Arthur Trevor Jebb. She was no Victorian ‘angel in the house’, preferring to indulge her passions for poetry and painting and delegate the running of the household to her Newnham-educated and efficient sister-in-law, Louisa. ‘Tye’ would shock people by being unconventional and sit on the floor in front of the fire reading the paper or painting at the kitchen table amid the servants. So in this respect she would have been a bit like Caroline who was told off by her husband for informality early on in their marriage. The Jebb family were comfortably off but not rich – an old established family of gentleman farmers rather than landed gentry. Arthur at first practised at the Bar but from 1874 the family estate in Shropshire was his to run. Farming was not easy in the early years and Arthur was apt to complain about the laundry bills; one servant in particular had sent 70 handkerchiefs and as many aprons to the laundry in a 90 day period.

By the 1880s things were easier and their brood of six children, four daughters and two sons, were growing  ; Eglantyne was then able to champion more formally Women’s rights and Women’s work. Dreamy and artistic she might have been, but this did not prevent the emergence of the philanthropic ideals and missionary zeal that were common to many women in the late Victorian period. As a result of arranging to give a local lad lessons in woodcarving, she had realised the importance of maintaining local craft practices, giving people skills and marketing the produce of the labours. So in the last half of 1882 the Cottage Arts Association, Shropshire was born. Eglantyne appears to have been the founder and mainstay of this particular association although similar organisations were springing up round the country. She clearly found the experience fulfilling, for on Christmas Eve she confided to her diary that 1882 had been ‘the most wonderful year of my life. A lifetime of experience crowded into six months’. A few years later, in 1885, Cottage Arts moved under the umbrella of the Home Arts and Industries Association (HAIA) which promoted historical home arts and crafts throughout England, Scotland and Ireland until the advent of WW1. Eglantyne is credited with being one of the founders of this nationwide network of craft classes and organisations along with Mary Seton Watts. She publicised the Association in The Magazine of Art (1885) and the first volume of Woman’s World (1888) .[2] Interestingly this latter article appeared under Oscar Wilde’s editorial reign; he too was a champion of the Arts and Crafts movement. Little did Eglantyne know how influential her initial work in helping to promote classes in rural crafts was to become; by 1890 there were more than 450 classes running throughout the UK. The Association that she helped to begin was a forerunner to the Arts and Crafts movement run by William Morris.

In 1904 The Art Workers Quarterly described HAIA as ‘ a society for teaching the working classes handicrafts such as wood carving, inlaying, metal repoussé , basket weaving, leather work, book binding, and for encouraging these and others such as lace, embroidery, spinning, weaving, pottery etc, by means of an annual exhibition’; the first exhibition took place in 1885 and it proved so popular that the Royal Albert Hall was used as a venue from 1888. It is not clear where the initial ‘craft’ emphasis lay, as the legacy seems largely to be objects made from wood and metal, but the 1880s was a fertile time for ladies of a certain class to get involved in philanthropy and needlework organisations. An 1883 list of work societies (to promote needlework, sell work and give jobs to the distressed) by ‘Dorinda’  quotes 31 such societies round the UK[3]. There are obvious complications with this type of model for as Janice Helland  says ‘it revolves around the troubled relationship between philanthropy and its lower-class subjects, the complicated nature of beneficence, and commonly held opinions about the differences between the Arts and Crafts Movement and home arts’.[4] There seem to have been a large number of ‘ do-gooders’ among the leaders (rather than practising artists/craftswomen) and this may well have been why Eglantyne stepped back from active involvement. Her role in the Association was comparatively short lived as family pressures made her withdraw publicly in 1886 . From accounts ‘Tye’ seemed to have suffered nervous exhaustion but it could just have been that the nationwide craft was just too complicated for her to continue. She was though involved in the important craft exhibitions of 1885 and 1886. No records of these exhibitions have been found but a contemporaneous article on the 1900 exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall is critical of the carving, metal work and furniture but extols the virtues of the hand weaving and stitched items. It is unclear whether these crafts were exhibited from Tye’s classes.

EJ flower block top right

It is however pertinent that the work of women is applauded, as many of the blocks of the Masters’ Wives quilt seem to have Arts and Crafts leanings. We do not know if this particular quilt was Tye’s idea, as the precise paths which give rise to embroidered signature quilts are unknown. I like to think that the still unknown ‘EJ’ was her monogram (see red flower block above, bottom right) and that in December 1891 her Cambridge sister-in-law Caroline Jebb might have asked for her assistance, knowing how talented and enthusiastic craftswoman Tye was. There were also further Cambridge connections as an HAIA metal work class, the Newton Class, was being run in Cambridge the city by John Williams (the ‘Copper weathervane in the form of a cockerel’, pictured above, and held in the Museum of Cambridge, is typical of this style). It is known that the class regularly featured at the HAIA exhibitions; and in a review of 1896 the Studio wrote: ‘The Newton (Cambridge) metal work included a fine panel of peacocks, part of a scheme for a complete decoration of a fireplace.[5] In 1901 Tye and her daughter Eglantyne moved to Cambridge to be near her brother Richard and his wife Caroline. By that time Tye was a widow and the children were largely off her hands; in time all four daughters were to become significant in their own right. Eglantyne and Dorothy co-founded the Save the Children Fund in 1919, Emily (Em) her eldest daughter was involved in Irish independence and wrote books, while Louisa (Lill) became the founder of the first Women’s Land Army in WW1.[6]

However we must not forget the achievements of Eglantyne Louisa ‘Tye’ Jebb, their mother. She was certainly an accomplished teacher, organiser, philanthropist, artist and likely to have been a creative sewer too!

© Carolyn Ferguson 22 May 2020 (all rights reserved)

1892

SOURCES

‘Copper weathervane in the form of a cockerel’, photographed by Peter Nixon, reproduced by kind permission of the Museum of Cambridge. https://www.museumofcambridge.org.uk/

‘Capturing Cambridge’ website: https://capturingcambridge.org/mill-road-area/mill-road/mill-road-cemetery/

[1]Mary Reed Bobbit, With Dearest Love to all: The Letters and Life of Lady Jebb, (Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1960), p 94.

[2] Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, ‘The Home Arts and Industries Association’, The Magazine of Art, 1885, p 294-298; Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, ‘The Home Arts and Industries Association’, Woman’s World, Vol 1, p 418-422.

[3] https://pdf.library.soton.ac.uk/WSA_open_access/00394502.pdf

[4] Janice Helland (2012) “Good Work and Clever Design”: Early Exhibitions of the Home Arts and Industries Association, The Journal of Modern Craft, 5:3, 275-293

[5] http://www.artsandcraftsmetalwork.co.uk/page14.htm

[6] Clare Mulley The Woman who Saved the Children (Oneworld Publications, 2009), p. 195.