Papers of the photographer Barbara Marcia Ker-Seymer

Scope and Content

Correspondence, diaries, papers, photograph albums, photographs, negatives, artworks, books, press cuttings and video recordings of the photographer Barbara Marcia Ker-Seymer.

Administrative / Biographical History

Barbara Ker-Seymer was the daughter of Horace Vere Clay Ker-Seymer (1868-1933), of independent means, and Diana (`Diane'), née Creyke (1873-1945), and the granddaughter of Gertrude Clay Ker Seymer, a novelist who wrote 'The Black Patch: A Sporting Novel' (1894) and `Since I First Saw your Face' (1899). Her maternal grandmother, Caroline Creyke, née Lawes (1844-1946), is believed to be the author of 'Sporting Sketches' (1890), published under the pseudonym "Diane Chasseresse". Ker-Seymer studied art at Chelsea Polytechnic (1921-25), where in 1921 she met the artist Edward Burra (1905-76) and the dancer William Chappell (1907-94), who became lifelong friends. In the following year they were joined by another student, Chloé(`Clover') Pritchard (later de Pertinez) (1905-86), who also became a close friend. Through Chappell, Ker-Seymer became friendly with the choreographer Frederick Ashton. She was a student at the Royal College of Art from Sep 1925 to Jul 1926. She also attended drawing classes at the Slade School of Fine Art from Jan 1927 to May 1928. In common with Burra, she was interested in jazz music and the cinema. Both enjoyed German films and joined the London Film Society when it was formed in 1925.
In 1929 Ker-Seymer began to learn photography as assistant to her friend Olivia Wyndham (1897-1967), a society photographer, at 19 King's Road, Chelsea. By 1932 she was working independently as a photographer at 19 King's Road and had a studio, Ker Seymer Photographs, at 15a Grafton Street, New Bond Street, between 1933 and 1940.
As a photographer she was primarily interested in portraits of single figures in interiors. Her work was often experimental and showed the influence of recent developments in German photography, especially in its use of sharp focus, negative printing and close ups for portraits (she was familiar with the German magazine 'Der Querschnitt'). She experimented with unusual lighting and backgrounds, such as sheets of corrugated iron, and knew Man Ray. A number of her photographs appeared in 'Harper's Bazaar', sometimes accompanying articles on society figures, from 1931 till about 1933. She also had photographs published in the 'Tatler', in 'Town and Country', and in 'Unit One' (1934), edited by Herbert Read. On holiday in Toulon with Burra and Chappell in Aug 1931, she took photographs of Jean Cocteau. In collaboration with the artist John Banting (1902-72), who provided decorations for her studio, she took a celebrated photograph of Nancy Cunard, which was at one time wrongly attributed to Cecil Beaton. Other collaborators included Curtis Moffat, Brian Howard and Humphrey Spender. She was assisted at one point by another friend, the novelist Julia Strachey (1901-79).
In the later 1930s Ker-Seymer worked on behalf of the Colman Prentice agency as a fashion photographer for Elizabeth Arden and Jaeger clothes. During the Second World War she worked on instructional films for the British Army with Larkins & Co. Thereafter, she abandoned professional photography and, in 1951, opened a launderette in Victoria, London, one of the early launderettes supplied by the Bendix Company. There were at least two branches of Ker-Seymer's Westminster Launderettes in London.
She had a wide circle of friends, including members of the Bloomsbury Group, notably David Garnett and Ralph Partridge. Later she enjoyed close friendships with the artist Beryl Cook and the crime writer Patricia Highsmith. Her work as a photographer in the 1930s was rediscovered toward the end of her life. In 1941 she married Humphrey Pease (born 1902), a friend of Tom Harrisson (1911-76) and an investigator for Mass-Observation but was divorced the following year. She married John Rhodes, with whom she had a son, Max, in 1945. They were divorced in 1955. Barbara Ker-Seymer was the subject of a documentary in the Channel 4 series 'Five Women Photographers' in 1986. Her work was also discussed in 'Germany: The New Photography, 1927-33' (1978), edited by David Mellor, and in Val Williams's `'Five Women Photographers: The Other Observers 1900 to Present' (1986). Further biographical information can be found in a short article, 'A Moment in the Light: Barbara Ker-Seymer', 'Oldie', 25 Jun 1993, in Macdonald Hastings's life of Caroline Creyke, 'Diane: A Victorian' (1974), and in Julie Kavanagh's 'Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton' (1996).


The papers have been arranged into the following series:

TGA 974/1 Diaries, TGA 974/2 Correspondence, TGA 974/3 Papers, TGA 974/4 Artworks, TGA 974/5 Photograph albums, TGA 974/6 Photographs, TGA 974/7 Negatives, TGA 974/8 Books, TGA 974/9 Press cuttings, TGA 974/10 Video recordings

Access Information

Letters from Ralph Partridge are not at present available to researchers.

Related Material

Letters from Barbara Ker-Seymer can be found in the papers of John Banting (TGA 779), Edward Burra (TGA 939), and Sir John Rothenstein (TGA 8726). Some of her photographs are included in the Banting Papers and in the papers of Cedric Morris (TGA 8317). Other of her letters (on Edward Burra) can be found in Tate Gallery Records. A number of obituaries are included in the Newspaper Cuttings Collection.