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 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.

 

Clubs of their own

bbbbff268e491097c1d4427208cd9b4d

“We were a very lively buzzing community, pushing along our way, very much amused with ourselves,” Blanche Athena Clough wrote of her time as a Newnham College student in the 1880s (she later became Principal). As well as studying Classics, she had lots of college clubs to choose from, including the Shakespeare Reading Society, the Browning Society, several French societies and the ever-popular debating society. Both Newnham and Girton had a rich associational life, as the section on ‘Social Life’ in the ongoing ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition at Cambridge University Library reveals. Most of the University’s student-run societies that began in the 1870s were exclusively male, as Clough confirms. “We had no part or lot in University societies except the Ladies Discussion Society and I think C.U.M.S. [Cambridge University Music Society]… in any case the University generally were hardly aware of our existence.”

I believe that the women-led societies that began in the 1880s and lasted for so many years helped to make Cambridge a better, more inclusive place. These were not University societies, but associations begun in most cases by women married to professors, masters and college fellows after the University dropped its celibacy requirements. I’ve been talking quite a bit about these clubs recently. I was invited to speak to Selwyn College alumni about Kathleen Lyttelton and ‘The Women who changed Cambridge’ at the rather splendid Oxford and Cambridge Club in London last November. Then I gave a talk called ‘A Club of Their Own’ at the University Library in December, connected to the ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition. This month I gave another version of that talk to the Friends of Milton Road Library in a bright and welcoming new library setting.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk in such a variety of places, particularly as the societies that I discussed brought ‘town and gown’ women together in such an active, outward-facing social network. The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls (founded in 1883) was practical and philanthropic in nature, helping underprivileged girls; it was co-founded by Ida Darwin and a small committee of married townswomen and dons’ wives.

downloadIn 1884 Selwyn Master’s wife Kathleen Lyttelton (pictured here) co-founded the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association with Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leading to the town becoming one of the major centres in the campaign for women’s votes. The Ladies’ Discussion Society, mentioned by B.A. Clough above, was founded in 1886 by Mary Paley Marshall and others with the aim of bringing University wives, townswomen and female students together to discuss social questions. Speakers included Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a medical doctor in England. In December 1892 she came to Cambridge to give a talk on the medical profession for women, and was ‘pelted with questions’ by Newnham and Girton students, according to a report in the Cambridge Independent Press.

IMG_8985Today, anyone who is interested in finding out more about these societies can access their extensive original archives in the Cambridgeshire Archives in a brand new, purpose-built site in Ely. It’s a bit harder to find out about the fourth club that I talked about, and have written about in this blog for the last few years. The exclusive Ladies’ Dining Society did not, as far as I know, keep minutes of their conversations or record details of the dinners they shared once or twice a term for almost twenty-five years. There are only intriguing snippets about the club in a couple of memoirs, and a handful of references in letters and diaries. It’s understandable that the women wanted to keep their conversations private, including from future researchers like me. The fact that it lasted for so many years shows that the Ladies’ Dining Society was deeply significant at a time when women’s voices and contributions to debate went largely unheard. I think that it’s a club worth celebrating, as we approach International Women’s Day on 8 March 2020.

‘Even to form a ladies’ social club was a mild assertion of women’s right to public space’, as Doughan and Gordon write. Below I have listed their useful book, along with archive sources and a selection of excellent books, essays and articles on women’s clubs.

The University has not always been welcoming to women, but the excellent Rising Tide exhibition and events show what women at Cambridge have achieved despite all the obstacles. The exhibition closes on 21 March, so do grab the chance to see it if you’re in Cambridge (and if you are not, my TLS review is here). The Friends of Milton Road Library provide a year-round programme of stimulating and varied talks: more information here.

©Ann Kennedy Smith 17 February 2020 (all rights reserved)

Cambridgeshire Archives: Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society minute book, 789/Q139; Cambridge Association for Social Welfare (1883-1985) [formerly CACG]  R106/097; Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society minute book, 789/Q139; CWSA Papers to 1919: 455/Q16-57, 59-60, 62-79; archives held at the Cambridgeshire Collection (in Cambridge Central Library) and the Museum of Cambridge.

Secondary sources: Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999) and ‘Rooms Of Their Own: Victorian And Edwardian Women’s Clubs: Hesitant Beginnings‘ & other articles on ‘Woman and her Sphere’ website (accessed 16 Feb 2020); Louise Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman: Reflections of Louise Creighton, 1850-1936 ed. James Thayne Covert (1994); D. Doughan and P. Gordon, Women, clubs and associations in Britain (2006); Linda Hughes, ‘A Club of Their Own: The “Literary Ladies,” New Women Writers, and Fin-de-Siècle Authorship’ Victorian Literature and Culture  35:1, March 2007, pp. 233-260; (1947); Amelia Hutchinson, ‘The “Hidden Histories” of women at Trinity’ unpub. dissertation (2019) https://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/news/amelia-hutchinson-on-the-hidden-histories-of-women-at-trinity/ (accessed 16 Feb 2020); Mary Paley Marshall, What I remember (Cambridge, 1947); G. Sutherland ‘Girton for ladies, Newnham for governesses’ in Teaching and Learning in Nineteenth-Century Cambridge, eds. Jonathan Smith and Christopher Stray, 2001) pp.139-149 and In Search of the New Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Britain 1870-1914 (Cambridge, 2015); Christina Paulson-Ellis, The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls: Social Work with Girls and Young women in Cambridge 1883 -1954 (2008); Ann Phillips, A Newnham Anthology (Cambridge, 1979); Tamsin Wimhurst, The Development, Importance and Influence of a Local Network of Women c. 1886 – 1930: unpub. MA dissertation, University of Cambridge 2007 (soon to be made available at Milton Road Library)

Women at Cambridge: Eileen Power

Power

In her essay called ‘Women at Cambridge’, published in February 1920, Eileen Power recalled being asked by a male Fellow for a ‘woman’s perspective’ on a problem. She argued that ‘a women’s outlook on art and science has nothing specifically womanly about it, it is the outlook of a PERSON.’ In a recent Times Literary Supplement I reviewed Francesca Wade’s newly published Square Haunting (Faber, 2020) which throws new light on the work and lives of two women who began their academic careers at Cambridge: Jane Ellen Harrison of Newnham College and Eileen Power at Girton (my essay  ‘Cursed with hearts and brains: female intellectuals and muses of the twentieth century’ features on the TLS front cover of 17 Jan 2020).

Everything changed for Eileen Power in 1920, when she was awarded an Albert Kahn Travelling Fellowship which granted £1,000 to scholars for a year’s global exploration. Power, who had been a Fellow in History at Girton College Cambridge since 1913, was the first woman to win this international honour and she was surprised to get it, especially after one suspicious interviewer told her that “she might defeat the objects of the trust by subsequently committing matrimony.” Power travelled to China, Egypt, and India, where she was delighted, as a committed pacifist and Labour Party member, to meet Mahatma Gandhi. She was one of only six Europeans to witness the Nagpur Congress assembly vow to adopt Gandhi’s policy of Non-cooperation. When she discovered that the Khyber Pass was closed to women, she simply put on male disguise and made the crossing anyway.

Power’s easy charm and stylish appearance meant that she stood out against the more sombre hues of the university world. ‘I certainly feel there is something radically wrong with my clothes from an academic point of view’, she told her sister Margery during her time at Girton. Male historians, enchanted by Power’s looks and personality, habitually underestimated her work, but they changed their minds after reading her books. As Wade comments, ‘Power saw no reason why an interest in clothes and a sense of humour could not be combined with professional rigour.’

220px-Eileen_Power,_1922_(2)
Eileen Power in 1922

While in India, Eileen Power received an offer of a lectureship in political science from the newly founded London School of Economics. She hesitated about leaving Cambridge, as she told a friend, “because it would mean a lot more teaching than I’ve done before & the screw is only £500 – but I want to be in London for a bit.” The LSE position was originally intended as a readership, with a salary of £800, but when they offered it to Power they made it a lectureship and reduced the pay. Over the course of her academic career, even after she became a professor at LSE, Power was consistently paid less than her male contemporaries, despite the fact that she was a renowned scholar, invited on international lecture tours and awarded honorary degrees from respected universities. Her book Medieval People was published in 1924, and she co-wrote children’s history books with her sister Rhoda Power, gave public lectures, and presented a World History series for the BBC in the 1930s.

From 1921 until 1940 Power lived in Mecklenburgh Square on the unfashionable eastern edge of Bloomsbury, as did the economic historian RH Tawney, her LSE colleague and friend. Under his influence, Power’s medieval historical research took an overtly political turn. She and Tawney co-edited a book, Tudor Economic Documents, published in three volumes from 1924 to 1927, and were both founding members of the Economic History Society, an international alliance of scholars. Power edited its influential journal the Economic History Review. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s there were regular gatherings of political leaders, journalists, theorists and writers, including Hugh Gaitskell, Evan Durbin and Hugh Dalton at both Tawney’s and Power’s rented flats, yet as Wade observes, today RH Tawney has a blue plaque in Mecklenburgh Square while Eileen Power does not. In Testament of Friendship (1940) Vera Brittain describes how, when she and Winifred Holtby were giving up their flat in nearby Doughty Street, one horrified friend asked them, “Why are you leaving the neighbourhood of Tawney and Eileen Power for a place called Maida Vale?”

For most of her life Eileen Power was opposed to marriage as an institution, convinced that its domestic binds were incompatible with a woman’s public ambitions. The ideal wife, she suspected, “should endeavour to model herself on a judicious mixture of a cow, a muffler, a shadow, a mirror.” When in 1937 she decided to marry her former student and LSE colleague Michael Postan, ten years her junior, it was a balance of head and heart. Sadly, just three years later she died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 51, and after her death much of her work was gradually forgotten, while the reputation of Postan and Tawney grew. To keep her memory alive, Eileen Power’s sister Beryl Power endowed a dinner at Girton College in her memory – “because men’s colleges had feasts and why should not women’s?”. Leading historians gather for the ‘Power Feast’ every ten years; the most recent Feast took place in January 2020, almost exactly 100 years after Eileen Power’s ‘Women At Cambridge’ essay.

A recent episode of BBC Radio 3’s ‘Free Thinking’ called ‘Pioneering women at universities’ features Jane Harrison and Eileen Power, while ‘The Rising Tide: Women At Cambridge’, a free exhibition and events exploring the lives and work of women at Cambridge over the past 150 years, continues at the Cambridge University Library.

Sources: Francesca Wade, Square Haunting (Faber, 2020); Maxine Berg, A Woman in History: Eileen Power (1889-1940) (CUP, 1996); LSE website; Girton College website

Steamboat ladies

Steamboat ladies

Women graduating at TCD, 1904-07

In 1968, Barbara Wright (née Robinson) became one of the first four women to be elected into the fellowship of Trinity College Dublin. To mark the occasion, Dame Ruth Cowen (the Principal of Newnham College Cambridge, where Wright had completed her Ph.D. degree in 1962) gave her a remarkable gift. It was one of the original graduation gowns that was worn by more than 700 women students from Cambridge and Oxford who, by special arrangement between 1904 and 1907, travelled to Dublin to be awarded the degrees they had earned. They were nicknamed ‘Steamboat Ladies’ for the cheap method of transport they used to travel to Dublin.

This offer to invite Oxford and Cambridge women to put on an academic gown and attend a degree ceremony on the same terms as male students was a remarkable act of generosity on the part of Dublin University. Seeing so many women graduating was an inspiration to Trinity College’s own first female students who began their studies there in 1904. Sadly, Professor Barbara Wright died last year, so it’s all the more moving that she loaned her historic gown to be displayed in the excellent exhibition ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ at the Cambridge University Library (my review in the Times Literary Supplement is free to read online here) As a Trinity College student in the early 1980s I was fortunate enough to be taught by Barbara Wright and it was partly thanks to her inspiring teaching, kindness and encouragement that I came to Queens’ College Cambridge to study for a PhD in 1985.

download‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’  closes on 21 March – so do go and see this academic gown, as well as a beautifully restored green Victorian tennis dress and many other fascinating objects, letters and photographs on display for the first time. It’s lovely to have this historic, tangible link between the first women at Trinity College Dublin and at Cambridge University.