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.