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Lettice Ramsey - Obituaries and feature article

Lettice Ramsey was my maternal grandmother, and a great character. Without her encouragement from about the age of ten or even younger, it is doubtful that I would have developed my keen interests in either wildlife or photography. Here are a couple of her obituaries, with a few additions/corrections in square brackets.

From The Times, 30 July, 1985

With the death of Lettice Ramsey on July 12th [1985], Cambridge has lost a notable character. Born on August 2, 1898, the daughter of English parents, she spent her early years under a governess in County Sligo [Ireland] where her father [Cecil Baker] had an oyster farm and her talented mother [Frances Baker] (trained at the Slade) painted.

She was then sent to Bedales and from there went up to Newnham [Cambridge University] to read philosophy. In 1925 she married the brilliant mathematician and philosopher, Frank Ramsey, and they had two daughters [Jane and Sarah] before Frank tragically died in 1930 at the age of only 26 [from liver disease].Lettice Ramsey (aged about 73)

Lettice then decided on photography for a living, took a course at Regent Street Polytechnic ("one term was quite enough") and joined forces with Helen Muspratt: "She had the know-how, I had the connections."

Connections, indeed. Lettice had, or made, and a long succession of unposed, lively portraits of the intellectual and literary luminaries of the pre-war flowed from the Cambridge studio - Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, Kathleen Raine, Victor Rothschild, J. D. Bernal, Dorothy Hodgkin, C. P. Snow, Joan Robinson and many more [including the notorious Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt in the 1930's].

In 1937 Helen Muspratt moved to Oxford, while Lettice remained active in Cambridge - activity which included climbing the scaffolding in King's Chapel in her seventies to photograph the [stained glass], and being locked in for her pains.

[It was not until her 80'th birthday that Lettice finally retired from being a professional photographer].

Photography was only one of Lettice's pursuits. She made pottery and collages; she was a persistent and adventurous traveller; and she had that rare quality of making her recurrent parties a success by enjoying them so much herself. [She was also interested in natural history, and often recalled being kept awake at night as a child on the west coast of Ireland by the rasping call of Corncrakes - presumably abundant in those days.]

Having suffered the tragedy of Frank’s death, and the later death of her younger daughter [Sarah], it was as though she challenged life to repay the debt it owed her: and she saw to it that life paid up, right to the end.

[Lettice was survived by her elder daughter Jane, and grandchildren Stephen, Belinda and Matthew Burch].

And a slightly less formal one:

From the Cambridge Evening News, July 18th, 1985.

When Lettice Ramsey tried to get into Cambodia she was stopped because she carried a camera and the authorities thought she was a journalist. She immediately arranged for herself another passport describing her occupation as "housewife". She got into Cambodia and took someLettice Ramsey (Portait by her mother Frances Baker, probably painted in 1915) excellent photographs there.

This incident was typical of Lettice Ramsey's approach to life. It was her originality, quick thinking and undoubted artistic flair which established her as one of Cambridge's leading photographers and which kept her at the forefront for decades.

She was born in Ireland in 1898 and was educated in this country at Bedales School and Newnham College, Cambridge. At Cambridge she read moral sciences and in her early 20s married Frank Ramsey, the brilliant King’s philosopher, who tragically died five years later.

She was left with two young daughters and very little training to equip her for a commercial career. She studied briefly at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London and then set up in business as a photographer.

She was instantly successful and rapidly became fashionable, photographing the influential and the up and coming throughout the 30s. Anthony Blunt, later to gain a knighthood only to be stripped of it for spying was among the sitters. Another was Virginia Woolf.

Lettice Ramsey took into partnership another gifted woman photographer. Helen Muspratt, whose name remained with the business until Lettice retired in 1978. Lettice Ramsey lived her entire career in Cambridge at Mortimer Road.

There is also this article which appeared in the Times well before her death in about 1969 which gives some further insight into her remarkable life and strength of character. I have added the text in square brackets to clarify/extend/correct some of the contents.

Cambridge’s own first lady

By Sara Payne, The Times, c.1969

Mrs. Lettice Ramsey, sister-in-law of the [then] Archbishop of Canterbury [Michael Ramsey], was refused an entry visa into Cambodia earlier this year. A professional photographer with her own business in Cambridge Mrs. Ramsey, who is 71, had to acquire a new passport describing herself as a housewife before she was persona grata.
Lettice Ramsey in later life, date unknown

She found it "rather infra dig" to pretend that she had recently retired from photographing a few weddings—she runs in fact a highly professional business — in order to convince the authorities that she was not a snooping journalist. Neither a journalist, nor a housewife, and far from retirement—"I shall never retire, I shall just ease out"—Mrs. Ramsey, a widow, who is without doubt Cambridge's own first lady, has just been round the world for the second time.

Friend of Virginia Woolf, Julian Bell and the philosopher Wittgenstein. she went with her sister in a spirit of adventure characteristic of the indefatigable women of the Edwardian generation — the age in which she grew up on her parent's oyster bed in the west of Ireland. [Not strictly true! - her father who died when Lettice was only about 5 - briefly farmed an oyster bed].

Her imagination fired by a friend's description of Cambodia, she visited the country in the last days of Prince Sihanouk's regime. Her week's stay in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap was unmarred by military manoeuvres. She and her sister, in the dark about impending political ructions, jogged round in a tiny trishaw from temple to temple. (Mrs. Ramsey recalls that they had difficulty in fitting their two bottoms side by side on the little seat, so took it in turns to perch on an extra bench above.)

One can imagine her travelling in the spirit of Aunt Dot in Rose Macaulay's The-Towers of Trebizond, as she said to her niece. "Take my camel, dear as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass".

Mrs. Ramsey is sad that such pleasant people as the Cambodians have been drawn into the Indo-China war. As she rightly points out the war will have a very adverse effect on the tourist trade, upon which the country relies so much.

When asked if in spite of the tightening up of security she managed to take any photographs, she replied indignantly, "I took hundreds ". Mrs. Ramsey, who has been a professional photographer since 1932, also took hundreds in Nepal, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Mexico during her three and a half month second odyssey round the world. She is a fund of anecdotes. In particular the national dress of Fiji—the tunic/sarong combination—took her fancy. "When you want to do anything you take off the bottom half and you have a nice little mini."

Mrs. Ramsey may be a seasoned traveller—she first went round the world in 1948, and earlier, in 1933, went on a good-will trip to Stalin's Russia —but she has put her roots firmly down in one place—Cambridge.

She first went there as an undergraduate from Bedales School just after the First World War to read moral sciences at Newnham. A contemporary of Lady Bragg, Mrs. Ramsey spent most of her time trying to get the strict rules of the college relaxed."You weren't allowed to go to the theatre or visit a tea room without a chaperone." She used the hole in the fence of the dons' garden to return from nightly sorties "By the time I left in 1929 you were able to entertain men in your room provided another student was there." She and her friends now have a "good deal of giggles " over the present generation's attitude towards sex. "They behave as if they discovered it".
Lettice Ramsey by Nick Lee, 1979

But Mrs. Ramsey, who was [briefly] married to Frank Ramsey, the highly gifted mathematician and fellow of King's College, remembers that there was a certain decorum attached to punting. Nowadays people can swirl helplessly round on the river without any sort of expertise, making fools of themselves and annoying others. Punting novitiates were only allowed out before breakfast in her day, even though many of them went to May balls in tweeds.

And then there was all the dancing. "Every-one was dancing mad after the First World War. They thought here is peace, everything is going to be wonderful. My time at Newnham was spent dancing." She remembers the euphoria of Armistice Day."I went round on the top of a bus ringing a bell."

During a life time spent in Cambridge at the centre of intellectual and artistic life, Lettice Ramsey who in a moment of confidence "told all" to Virginia Woolf, has known many of the jeunesse doree of the century. She was a friend of Vanessa Bell's son Julian who was killed tragically in the Spanish Civil War. "This was the one cause people felt they could do something about."

Maynard Keynes, the economist was "very, clever at putting the ordinary kind of person at their ease. He made you feel more intelligent rather than less." She helped Wittgenstein whose Tractatus Logicus was translated into English by Frank Ramsey, look for digs in Cambridge. "But he was a difficult character who made everything into a controversial moral problem. He turned down the rooms they found because he felt the family should not be letting rooms while living in the basement."

The pleasure loving Guy Burgess of Burgess and Maclean notoriety caused a stir among old Cambridge friends when they heard of his defection. "He did not seem a person who would have carried his beliefs to that length," says Mrs Ramsey. "All intellectuals in Cambridge were communists at that time. We had great hopes, but then we were gradually let down."

Mrs Ramsey is not a woman who lives in the past although her husband died at the age of 26. Still very much at the centre of things she runs a large house in Mortimer Road, near the Parker's Piece cricket ground. It has been her home for 40 years. There she entertains her friends to cordon bleu cooking and keeps the young—her graduate lodgers—on their toes with her energy and keen perception.

Lettice's photographs
Some of Lettice's photographs still survive in the
Ramsey & Muspratt section of the Cambridgeshire collection.

I am also gathering a selection here.

Lettice's early years
Here is some additional information on Lettice's early years, which are only briefly touched upon in the above material. Lettice was the daughter of Frances (nee Davis Colley) and Cecil Baker. Frances was a very talented amateur painter (trained at the Slade) and spent much of Lettice's childhood painting, which left Lettice and her younger sister (also called Frances) rather on their own. For an example of her work, see the portrait of Lettice above.

Lettice was from an English family who for reasons that are not clear moved to the west coast of Ireland, where Lettice was born in 1898 and brought up. This was at Rosses' Point, Co Sligo – just a few miles north west of the town of Sligo. Cecil Baker was an oyster farmer, until his early death in about 1903, when Lettice was only about 4. This was the first of three tragedies involving early deaths of Lettice's close relatives. Her husband Frank died in 1930, when Lettice was only 31 or 32. Lettice's younger daughter Sarah died while still at University in 1949.

In 1904, after Cecil’s death, the family moved from Rosses’ Point to somewhere which seems to have been called Coillte-Laine, Co Sligo which was about 10 miles south west of Sligo, to be near a friendly family. In England, the family had connections with the Sussex area. A large house called “Borough” or similar was involved. They spent some of the year there.

I remember Lettice saying that in her early days expeditions were limited by the range of the available horse & cart – about 5 miles! She also spoke of hearing Corncrakes at night. Lettice was sent to Bedales boarding school in England when she reached secondary school. Her early days in Ireland clearly meant a great deal to Lettice, and she always enjoyed returning to the west coast of Ireland in later years. We had a number of family holidays there in the 1960's, the first of which in 1963 marked the start of my interest in birding, and the start of my life list!

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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