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.’

I should have said that along with Helen Muspratt (1907-2001) she was one of the leading women photographers not just of the 1930s, but of the twentieth century. The women’s photographic partnership began when they opened their first studio in Cambridge in 1932, and expanded to Oxford after Muspratt married and opened a studio there in 1937. My interest in Ramsey & Muspratt was sparked by seeing their portrait of Dorothy Hodgkin (who is associated with both Oxford and Cambridge) hung side by side with the 1915 painting of Lettice Ramsey in the Cambridge University Library as part of their ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition of 2019-20.

Now Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries have recently secured 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 Helen Muspratt seriously as a photographer.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Lettice Ramsey’s creative 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 that matched Muspratt’s. Oxford’s understandable wish to claim Muspratt as an important part of their history overlooks the work that the women did collaboratively in Cambridge in the 1930s and 1940s before they continued their work separately in both university cities for many years afterwards.

After all, it’s impossible to say which of the two photographers took their acclaimed solarised photographs, as well as this 1937 portrait of Nobel prizewinner Dorothy Hodgkin, 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 an important part of their artistic process as their work behind the camera; both women should be acknowledged as the groundbreaking photographers 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.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s graduation day

100 years ago the first Oxford University graduation ceremony to award degrees to women took place; the future crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first fifty celebrants. This post is about its lasting effect on her.

Today, 17 October 2020, marks Oxford University’s matriculation day, when students are formally welcomed as members of the University and its colleges. Due to the ongoing pandemic, today’s event was a ‘virtual matriculation’, with the Formal Welcome address delivered online this morning by the Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson. Lots of the new students, described as ‘in absentia’, dressed up in their academic gowns anyway, to celebrate the occasion as best they can.

Earlier this month, in her annual Oration to the University (delivered in the socially distanced Sheldonian Theatre) Professor Richardson reminded her colleagues that it was 100 years ago, on 7 October 1920, that women were admitted to full membership of the University: ‘It took a very, very long time, many hundreds of years in fact, for women to earn the right to an Oxford degree’. The first graduation ceremony to award Oxford degrees to women took place just a week later, as if to make up for lost time.

It was a pleasantly warm autumn day on 14 October 1920 when fifty women were presented with their Oxford University degrees in the grand surroundings of the Sheldonian. The women graduating that day included five heads of houses of the women’s colleges at Oxford as well as former students who had waited many years for their degree certificates; during the next academic year over 400 more women would take part in degree ceremonies there.

But the first one, on 14 October 1920, was a graduation day like no other. Never before had an Oxford Vice-Chancellor uttered the ceremonial Latin words ‘domina, magistra’ in the feminine gender at a degree ceremony, and the vast, high-ceilinged auditorium rang with the loud cheers of family, friends and supporters of women’s education. Twenty-seven-year old Dorothy L. Sayers was among the celebrants that day. Wearing her brand new academic cap and gown, she was awarded a first-class degree in modern languages. Sayers had completed her studies at Somerville five years before, but she was determined not to miss out on this historic occasion. She had requested a place at the October ceremony, she told her mother, ‘because I want so much to be in the first batch. It will be so much more amusing.’

The women’s success was celebrated at Somerville College that evening with a special dinner, presided over by Principal Emily Penrose (who since 1907 had made sure that all her students fulfilled the requirements for an Oxford degree) and attended by Somerville graduates Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby among others. The guest of honour was Professor Gilbert Murray, a classical scholar and strong supporter of women’s higher education. His Cambridge friend, Jane Ellen Harrison, a lecturer in classical archaeology at Newnham College, was jealous.  ‘I gnash my teeth when I think of all your Somerville young women preening in cap and gown,’ she told Murray. ‘So like Oxford and so low to start after us and get in first!’ The following year, a vote to award degrees to women at Cambridge would be defeated. The 1920 Oxford vote had given hope to Harrison and others at Newnham and Girton; but by 1921 the tide of gratitude towards women for their war effort had turned, and Cambridge would not confer degrees on women until 1948.

When Dorothy L. Sayers began studying modern languages at Somerville in 1912 it was still, technically, only an ‘affiliated women’s society’ within Oxford University. Somerville women were called ‘freaks’ by male students because of what was seen as their ‘unnatural’ – and threatening – devotion to learning. In her first term Sayers started up a literary society with a handful of other students, which they named ‘The Mutual Admiration Society’. Despite the jokey name, it was ‘a subversive community within an institution where women were constantly reminded that their talents were not wholly welcome’, as biographer Francesca Wade puts it (Wade, p.100). Sayers had a passion for writing but played down her talents (‘I write prose uncommonly badly, and can’t get ideas’). Only her close friends in the Mutual Admiration Society knew of her secret passion for ‘lowbrow’ crime fiction.

Sayers began to publish poetry and essays, but the possibility of actually making a living as a writer seemed as far-fetched as some of the plots in the novels she loved. During this period, the great majority of women students, no matter their subject of study, took up teaching after university: ‘all that she sees before her, unless she has exceptional talent, is teaching’ observed the economist Clara Collet in 1902 (Sutherland, p.26) Sayers wanted something different, but before her graduation day in 1920, she was not sure what that would be. So in 1916 she took a job teaching modern languages at a girls’ school in Hull, then returned to Oxford in 1917 to work for publisher and bookseller Basil Blackwell. But she soon found that, as Mo Moulton writes in The Mutual Admiration Society, ‘a single woman who was neither a student nor an academic had no obvious place in Oxford society’ (Moulton, p.79). Her landladies were suspicious of her wish to hold literary salons for Somerville students and, on one occasion, a respectable tea for wounded soldiers. One landlady told Sayers that she would rather have a badly behaved male undergraduate as a lodger than a ‘permanent woman’.

After her graduation day, Sayers decided that her life had to change. She moved to London, took on translating work and part-time teaching to make ends meet, then in December 1920 found an unfurnished room in Mecklenburgh Square on the eastern, unfashionable fringe of Bloomsbury. Her lodgings had the advantage of being cheap and close to the British Library, where, on her application form to use the reading room, she proudly wrote down her new academic status: ‘a Master of Arts at Oxford’. She stated that she was considering doing a postgraduate degree to work on her thesis called ‘the Permanent Elements in Popular Heroic Fiction, with a Special Study of Modern Criminological Romance.’

This may have been partly true. After her undergraduate studies Sayers had thought about staying on as an academic at Somerville, but decided that she was ‘too sociable’ to spend her life in a women’s college. She had always loved detective novels – she devoured the popular Sexton Blake thrillers – but knew that her secret wish to write such stories herself would not be seen as worthy of an Oxford graduate. Now in London, as she mixed with bohemian writers and artists and went to see ‘Grand Guignol’ plays near the Strand, she began to see crime fiction in a different light. In an unpublished essay, probably written in the British Library, she addresses ‘Miss Dryasdust, M.A.’ who ‘disapproves of my fondness for detective stories of the more popular kind’. Sayers tells Miss Dryasdust that she is wrong, and that crime fiction holds the same place in the contemporary imagination as Beowulf and the heroic epics of ancient Greece once did.

‘Miss Dryasdust’, with her prized Master of Arts degree, could be the alter ego of Dorothy L. Sayers herself, as the Oxford scholar who pursued her research interests at Somerville. Instead, in January 1921, Sayers began sketching out an idea for her first book, published in 1922 as Whose Body? It introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, the wealthy, athletic and intelligent protagonist of several of Sayers’s subsequent novels and stories who delights in solving mysteries for  his own amusement. He embodied the opposite of everything in her life at time, as she later recalled: ‘After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet.’ 

In Strong Poison (1930) Sayers introduced the character who was much closer to herself: Harriet Vane, a successful crime writer and former Oxford student who lives in Mecklenburgh Square. In Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night (1935) Vane is invited to return to her former college (here named Shrewsbury) to help the women there to solve a series of hate crimes. As she hesitates, wondering how her former academic community will welcome her now, she realizes that these are the women who taught her to value her own intellectual ability and independence, and the three years she spent among them at Oxford enabled her to achieve the creative life that she wanted. ‘Whatever I may have done since, this remains’, Vane reminds herself, gathering her confidence, and her voice could be that of Sayers herself. ‘Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University’.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 17 October 2020 (all rights reserved)

Sources: Vera Brittain, The Women At Oxford: a Fragment of History (Harrap,1960); Ellen Brundrige, ‘Translations of Latin in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night’; Janet Howarth,'”In Oxford… but not of Oxford”: the women’s colleges’, History of the University of Oxford, ed. Brock and Curthoys, vol VII (OUP, 2000)  pp 237-307; Mo Moulton, The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women (Basic Books, New York, 2019); Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (Gollancz, 1935);How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter Wimsey’ quoted in Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (1997); Gillian Sutherland, In Search of the New Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Britain 1870-1914 (CUP, 2015); Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (Faber & Faber, 2020)

Websites:

Vice-Chancellor’s Oration 2020: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2020-10-06-vice-chancellors-oration-2020

Somerville College (with photo of Dame Emily Penrose & Gilbert Murray): https://www.some.ox.ac.uk/news/100-years-of-degrees-for-women/

Women Making History, 100 years of Oxford degrees for women: https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/oxford-people/women-at-oxford

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 (via Art UK‘s website).

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.)

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 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)

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.

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, deceptive version of that academic year – advised closely by Aurelia – did not last beyond 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 Newnham tutor Dorothea Krook-Gilead turned out not to be the prudish Victorian that Plath had feared – she was warm and understanding – and the Fulbright Commission was positively encouraging. The couple’s 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), and he found them a flat at 55 Eltisley Avenue, near Grantchester Meadows in Newnham village, where they would live together from December.

With the marriage no longer a secret, Plath became 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: her briskly sensible tone could hardly be more different from how she wrote about her wedding almost six months previously.

Plath had made one concession to her mother: to have a set of studio photographs taken of herself and Hughes. “Thanks for the money,” she told Aurelia towards the end of November, “we’ll have a good picture taken this vacation, you may be sure”. With no grand English wedding to impress them with, at least there would be a set of commemorative photographs taken by the prestigious firm of Ramsey & Muspratt, who had studios in Cambridge and Oxford. Aurelia Plath was prepared to pay for the best.

But a few weeks later neither Plath nor Hughes were happy with the results. On 20 December 1956, Sylvia sent her mother a Christmas card along with a proof sheet of the photographs. ‘Well, here are enclosed a few of the best of the grisly proofs,’ she wrote.

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 “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 (more about the Bodleian’s recent exhibition here). In the 1930s they had been a groundbreaking artistic partnership, celebrated for their photographic innovations, and sixty of their perceptive portraits of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Circle are now in the National Portrait Gallery.

But both women were their families’ main breadwinners, and Muspratt confirmed that from the 1950s on, 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.” For poets Plath and Hughes, who longed to smash conventions, there was too great a gap between their wildly romantic Bloomsday wedding and the dutiful studio photographs they posed for six months later.

See The Wedding Photos, part 2, for more on why Plath and Hughes’s wedding photos were hidden away for over 50 years. The photograph above, taken by Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramsey in December 1956, features on the cover of the recent reissue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (Granta, 2020). I wrote about it in the Times Literary Supplement along with three other recent books about Sylvia Plath, and my post about Lettice Ramsey is here.

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