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.’

Along with her photographic partner Helen Muspratt (1907-2001), Ramsey was indeed one of the leading women photographers not just of the 1930s, but of the twentieth century. The women’s creative partnership began when they opened their first studio in Cambridge in 1932, and their business expanded to Oxford after Muspratt married and opened a studio there in 1937. My own interest in Lettice, and the Ramsey & Muspratt business, was sparked by seeing their luminous portrait of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who gained her PhD at Cambridge before taking up an academic appointment at Oxford. Ramsey & Muspratt’s portrait was displayed side by side with Frances Baker’s 1915 painting of Lettice Ramsey in the Cambridge University Library as part of their ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ exhibition of 2019-20.

Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries are to be congratulated in recently securing Helen 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 Muspratt seriously as a photographer.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Lettice Ramsey’s early 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 and brilliance that matched Muspratt’s. Oxford’s understandable wish to claim Muspratt as one of their own overlooks the studio and developing room work that the women did collaboratively in Cambridge in the 1930s and 1940s before they continued their work separately in both university cities from the 1940s onwards.

After all, it’s impossible to say which of the two photographers took their acclaimed solarised photographs, as well as the aforementioned portrait of Nobel prizewinner Hodgkin (see below), because all of their portraits of the time were signed democratically as Ramsey & Muspratt. Both women considered their work in the darkroom to be as important a part of their artistic process as what they did behind the camera; and both women should be equally acknowledged as the groundbreaking photographers and creative partnership that 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.

From the periphery into the unknown

I wrote about Frances Larson’s Undreamed Shores: The Hidden Heroines of British Anthropology (Granta, 2021) for this week’s Times Literary Supplement – I’m thrilled that it’s highlighted on its beautiful front cover (see below). Undreamed Shores is an excellent group biography of five women who were among the first students to take the diploma in anthropology at Oxford University between 1907 and 1918. (At Cambridge during that time there was only one comparable student, Winifred Hoernle, a South African who went on to become a lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand.) Anthropology was one of a cluster of diploma courses including geography, education and modern languages to offer vocational training beyond Oxford’s traditional degrees, and many were taught by progressive tutors who welcomed female students.

After taking their diplomas, Maria Czaplicka, Katherine Routledge, Beatrice Blackwood, Winifred Blackman and Barbara Freire-Marreco were among Oxford’s first female lecturers. Instead of being content to work in libraries, as most male anthropologists had done, they showed extraordinary determination to travel to remote and inhospitable countries to pursue their research ‘in the field’. ‘Fieldwork was more than a job; it was liberation’, as Larson observes. ‘They went from the periphery into the unknown, and I doubt that any of them felt fully at home in England again.’

These ‘lady anthropologists’ had to fight hard to prevent men from compromising their ambitions. They encountered obstacles at every turn, and perhaps the most tragic story is that of Maria Czaplicka (pictured here), who left her family in Poland for the chance to study at Oxford. As part of her research, she trekked more than 3,000 miles through a frozen Siberian winter to live among nomadic reindeer-herders. Her book My Siberian Year (1916) was critically acclaimed, but she failed to get funding for further research trips and in 1919 she was forced to give up her Oxford lectureship after it was offered to a much less qualified male graduate who had returned from the war. She never recovered from this blow.

Undreamed Shores is a beautifully written book, engaging and enlightening. It also made me very angry to read about how the groundbreaking work of these talented and committed early anthropologists was not recognized during their lifetime. ‘Far from being celebrated as female pioneers in anthropological fieldwork,’ Larson writes, ‘they were almost entirely overlooked by those who followed.’ Her book does much to set this record straight.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 27 June 2021. All rights reserved.

Libraries for our times

‘Bodleian Library’ by A. Pugin, in Joseph Foster’s Oxford Men and Their Colleges (1893) https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Oxford_men_and_their_colleges.djvu/601, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82456602

What role do libraries play in society today? And tomorrow? Last week I was fortunate enough to attend an online conference asking these questions, marking 700 years since the founding of the first purpose-built central library for the University of Oxford (you can see three excellent short videos on the past, present and future of the Bodleian Libraries on their website here.) Over the three days of the ‘Oxford Library 700’ conference there were fascinating talks by librarians, archivists and authors as well as specialists in the world of media, science and communication on the role that libraries have played and continue to play in our global society. Recordings of talks by Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden and others will be available soon via the website: meanwhile, I have listed a few of my own personal highlights below.

In his keynote speech, ‘The library as wishful thinking’, the writer and former Director of the National Library of Argentina, Alberto Manguel asked why libraries around the world are often seen as outdated institutions. ‘How can things have gone so wrong?’, he asked. Libraries are as powerful as the use we continue to make of them, and can be reduced to mere adornment if a nation perceives them as irrelevant. ‘Any cultural institution entails both the possibility of learning and of imaginative change’ he argued, ‘and also the duty to understand the use we make of these tools of survival.’ According to Manguel, if we want to make libraries and the information they hold relevant to people again, we should ‘encourage civil disobedience, behave badly, make the government do their job.’

The novelist and FT columnist Nilanjana Roy gave us a heartening glimpse into how people are continuing to access books in India, even after the coronavirus pandemic has caused so many public libraries to close. Roy is a founding member of PEN Delhi, and has spent time tracking the ‘pavement libraries’ that sprang up during the recent citizens’ protests in New Delhi. Most of these makeshift libraries were assembled by women who wanted to pass their love of reading on to their children and others in their neighbourhoods. ‘We saved the books,’ one woman told her, ‘and among ourselves, we still read.’ Roy reminds us that, wherever we are in the world, our libraries should invoke a similar ‘magical foundation of trust’, and the simple invitation: ‘come sit and read’.

Dr Sandra Collins has been Director of the National Library of Ireland (NLI) since 2015. Her talk began movingly with a treasured photo of herself as a child with her late mother, followed by a snap of W.B. Yeats with his family, to illustrate the role of a national library as a ‘memory keeper’ for all of its citizens. She showed us a photograph of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963, and told us that a man had recently written to the library to say that he was the overawed young boy, seen with his mother at Dublin airport. Since the NLI joined the image-sharing website ‘Flickr’ it has had over 8 million views, Collins said, with other ‘citizen detectives’ coming forward to enrich the national collection with their memories of their past.

What will happen to our contemporary memories, she asked, now that there are so few written letters and so much that is ‘born digital’? Collecting and curating is not neutral, she explained, and told us how, as well as guarding the nation’s treasures, the NLI’s mission is to collect ‘the ordinary and the superficial’ that will help to tell Irish people’s stories in the future. This includes capturing websites and other data in a way that embraces the diversity of modern Ireland. ‘How we collect today will shape our country’s memory in future,’ she said. ‘In this way, the ordinary becomes extraordinary’.

Screenshot of Dr Gardner’s Oxford Library 700 talk, 17 Sept 2020, by A. Kennedy Smith

Dr Jessica Gardner is University Librarian and Director of Library Services at the University of Cambridge. Her talk ‘Owning the past, seizing the present’ also addressed the question of how she and her colleagues might approach the past while striving to make a library that is fit for present and future challenges. Referring to the 700th anniversary of Oxford Libraries, she said: ‘we should celebrate such momentous occasions, but we are always in a state of becoming.’ The role of libraries today should be ‘challenging the past, illuminating the present’, and she wants libraries to be places of ‘conversation and activism’.

As an example of challenging the past, Gardner drew attention to her ‘Behave Badly’ badge, which coincidentally echoed Alberto Manguel’s words in his keynote address. The badge is a replica of one handed out by the renowned historian Lisa Jardine (Jesus College’s first female fellow) in the 1970s and ’80s, encouraging her women friends to pin it under their jackets if necessary. It featured in the University Library’s recent ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition, marking 150 years of women at Cambridge, and Gardner said that wearing it reminded her of the struggle that women at Cambridge had to gain equal membership of the university. She praised Dr Jill Whitelock‘s excellent archival research into the historical University Library as a ‘contested space’ that symbolized and reinforced privilege, and I was delighted that she also mentioned my recent blog about the 1891 petition, when 24 women lecturers from Girton and Newnham colleges politely requested access to the University Library. As Gardner says, ‘whilst their books were welcomed on the library shelves, their access to the library itself was severely restricted’.

Gardner urged her colleagues around the world to enable more people to make use of their libraries: ‘We should make our content as open and accessible as possible, for as many people as possible.’ Although access to public spaces has to be limited during this uncertain time, all of the talks I listened to last week reminded me that the future of our libraries will be to welcome more readers through their doors, and to be able to access their extraordinary collections digitally. Cambridge University Library has recently joined Google Arts and Culture so that it can share its treasures freely and openly with many more people.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 24 September 2020