A prolific stage actor in her native England, Kempson worked very occasionally in films over nearly half a century and, especially in her later years, did much TV work as well. She is perhaps best known, though, as Lady Redgrave, matriarch of the prominent acting dynasty. Married to the gifted stage and screen star Michael Redgrave from 1935 until his death in 1985, Kempson mothered the similarly talented Vanessa, Lynn and Corin Redgrave and is also the grandmother of actors Natasha and Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave. Lynn and particularly Vanessa look strongly like her but, to give credit where it is due, Kempson has been more than a figurehead. Particularly in her rich stage credits, she has enjoyed a very distinguished career.
Trained at RADA, Kempson debuted onstage in a 1933 production of "Much Ado About Nothing" in Stratford-on-Avon, and first graced the London stage that same year in "The Lady from Alfaqueque". Over the years she has performed in repertory at Liverpool and Oxford and with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theater Company at the Old Vic and the English Stage Company. Her Shakespeare credits cover much of the Bard's oeuvre and include "Romeo and Juliet" (as Juliet in 1933 and as Lady Capulet on tour in the USSR in 1958), "Twelfth Night" (as Olivia in 1934 and as Viola in 1935-37) and "King Lear" (as Regan, 1953). Slowing down only between 1937 and 1943 when she had her three children, Kempson also trod the boards in the title role of "Candida" (1949) and in productions of "Volpone" (1937), "Sparks Fly Upward" (1947), "The Happy Time" (1952), "Teresa of Avila" (1961), "Samson Agonistes" (1965) and "The Old Country" (1977). She worked regularly with her husband on the stage, and also toured over the years in plays ranging from "Blithe Spirit" (1942) to "Hedda Gabler" (1955).
Kempson made her film debut in a small role in the whimsical romantic comedy "Jeannie" (1941), starring Michael Redgrave and later worked with him in the moving WWII story "The Captive Heart" (1946) and played his wife in another war saga "The Sea Shall Not Have Them" (1954). Her first US film was the gripping melodrama "A Woman's Vengeance" (1948), though most of her subsequent film credits have been in UK productions. Usually in modest supporting roles as dignified, often titled, types, Kempson has credits spanning the gamut from "The Curse of the Fly" (1965) to "Tom Jones" (1963) and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1968); in both of the latter she got to act with several of her children and was directed by then son-in-law Tony Richardson. Kempson played nuns in "A Touch of Love" (1969) and "Stealing Heaven" (1988) and also stood up with Meryl Streep at her wedding in "Out of Africa" (1985). TV work has been in a similar vein, with such "Masterpiece Theater" miniseries as "Elizabeth R" (1972) and "The Jewel in the Crown" (1984-85) and in TV-movie period dramas including "Jane Eyre" (1971), "Little Lord Fauntleroy" (1980) and "Camille" (1984).