The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Anvant-garde in Swanage – Helen Muspratt

The pioneering Swanage artist and photographer Helen Muspratt is discussed by her daughter, Jessica Sutcliffe

Helen Muspratt was born in India, the daughter of a soldier in the Indian Army. The family returned to England in 1914 and later settled in the seaside town of Swanage where she and her sister Joan attended Oldfield School as day girls.  Encouraged by her friend, Francis (Fra) Newbery, former head of the Glasgow School of Art, who was now retired and living in Swanage, she studied photography at the Regent Street Polytechnic and at the age of 21, set up a studio in Swanage. Within two years it was featured in “British Photography” who described her studio as one where ‘every aspect reflects the personality of an individual photographer’.
In 1932 she met Lettice Ramsey, whose husband Frank, a brilliant young mathematician at Cambridge, had recently died. They decided to set up a studio there and Ramsey & Muspratt was established. Among their sitters were members of the Bloomsbury Group, Cambridge academics and scientists and they also photographed Burgess and McLean who later became notorious as spies. Many of these photographs are regularly to be seen in the National Portrait Gallery. Many of the Bloomsbury set were in turn regular visitors to Purbeck and in particular Swanage and Studland.

Helen’s solarized picture of Hilda and Mary Spencer Watson in the play Jacob & Esau

Helen’s solarized picture of Hilda and Mary Spencer Watson in the play Jacob & Esau

Helen was mixing with a vibrant set of idealistic intellectuals during term time and retreating to Swanage for the summer months where business was flourishing.
A chance viewing of one of Man Ray’s solarized photographs lead to experiments with this technique and remarkable images were created. These include an outstanding series of pictures of mother and daughter, Hilda and Mary Spencer Watson who performed exotic dance tableaux in Purbeck.     The Spencer Watson’s had bought Dunshay Manor in Purbeck and Mary continued to work there as a sculptor of some note until her death. Her sculpture of a local quarryman can be seen in the churchyard at nearby Langton Matravers.

One of Helen’s portraits of Paul Nash

One of Helen’s portraits of Paul Nash

Helen also took iconic portraits of the artist Paul Nash. He was an important visitor to Swanage and made a series of surrealist paintings that featured the area and the cliffs of Ballard Down in particular. ◗

❱ Jessica Sutcliffe is an architect specialising in Building Conservation. In 2006 she and her husband Robin moved into the family home, Cliff Cottage in Swanage, which had been such an important part of Helen’s life. Jessica is currently finalising a book on her mother and will give an illustrated talk on this pioneering artist as part of the Purbeck Art Weeks (PAW) Festival on Wednesday 27 May at 7.30 at Harman’s Cross Village Hall BH19 3EB. Cath Newman will read from Helen’s letters and Penny Denton – the writer on Paul Nash and his time in Swanage – has helped in the production of this event. Tickets are available at £10 from the Festival website
www.purbeckartweeks.co.uk

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