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.
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.
Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, first published in 1993, is a brilliantly written, forensic investigation into the transgressive power of 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.”
The book’s cover conjures up the sense of dissonance and silence in the lives of Plath and Hughes. It’s a fitting image for Janet Malcolm’s book that takes as its subject the bitter aftermath of Plath’s suicide in 1963, and what she describes as the “dubious, unauthentic, suspect” ways that biographers have told the couple’s story ever since. Although the original photo 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 post is about how this set of pictures came to be taken, and why the couple hated them so much.
As I described in my previous post, it was on a mild winter’s day in early December 1956, six months after their summer wedding that 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 all 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 had 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. Aurelia 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 her. Less welcome for the couple was an expensive invoice from the photographer Lettice Ramsey, who enclosed 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. 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.
In the black and white 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 conventional portraits: Plath’s smile is hesitant, while Hughes looks grim, and reluctant to be there at all. The photos represent nothing about the relationship they had, and everything about putting on a show for the benefit of her mother’s friends. It’s in a very different style to Lettice Ramsey’s celebrated, intensely romantic double portrait of John Cornford and Rachel ‘Ray’ Peters in 1934.
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 Ramsey’s Cambridge studio until it closed in 1978 and the originals were sold on to Peter Lofts (a selection can be seen on Lofts’s website here.). In 2013 the Plath scholar Gail Crowther spotted one of the images online, and Lofts gave her 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 of 1956. “Photography,” Barthes states, “has something to do with resurrection.” Now this unloved, suppressed image has been resurrected for the cover design for the reissue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, and it speaks its truth through the book’s pages.
My thanks to Luke Bird and Lamorna Elmer of Granta Books, and to Di Beddow, Peter Lofts, Chris Murray and Gail Crowther. See also my following post, ‘Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985)’about the photographer Lettice Ramsey and her extraordinary creative partnership with Helen Muspratt, and myTLS reviewof four books about Plath.
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 Ramseyis here.