Lawrence Hole, curator of the Madame Yevonde archive, on Godesses.
Madame Yevonde (1893-1975)
Yevonde Middleton, better known as Madame Yevonde, was born in 1893 to a wealthy English family. She grew up to be one of England’s best regarded portrait photographers, pioneering the use of colour photography in the mid-twentieth century.
At just twenty-one, Madame Yevonde set up her own studio on Victoria Street in London. By the early 1920s, she established her name as an innovative portraitist, capturing famous personalities of the day including Diana Mitford, Noël Coward, and AA Milne. By the turn of the decade, she began experimenting with new colour technologies and produced iconic images using the Vivex colour process.
Her brilliant use of colour is well displayed in a 1932 portrait of Joan Maude. A careful curator of her subjects, Madame Yevonde posed the red-haired actress in front of a bright red background. She dressed her in a silky red robe, complemented by a vibrant scarlet lipstick. The result is remarkable.
The portrait of Joan Maude is reminiscent of her most famous body of work, referred to as Goddesses. Inspired by a themed party hosted by some of her high society clients, Madame Yevonde photographed several women as classical figures, from Persephone, Queen of Hades, to Europa, mortal victim of Zeus. In Mrs Anthony Eden as The Muse of History (1935) , Madame Yevonde innovates again with colour, this time blue. By placing blue cellophane over her camera lens, Madame Yevonde created a striking blue hue across the entire image.
As well as a unique use of colour, Madame Yevonde’s work is also characterized by the use of props. Whether in her Goddesses series or in still life anti-war images like 411 Crisis (1939) she embedded objects into her images to create specific meaning. In a self-portrait, entitled Madame Yevonde (now housed at the National Portrait Gallery) we see this at play. At the forefront of the image is a collection of her camera equipment. Behind that, centered in a golden frame stands Madame Yevonde herself, holding up a picture negative. Hanging above her is a portrait from her Goddesses series, The Duchess of Wellington as Hecate (1935).
Throughout her life, Madame Yevonde was committed to the women’s rights movement. Before her career began, she applied to be a photographer of the suffragette cause but was instead hired as the apprentice of famous portratist Lallie Charles. Nevertheless, her work continued to reflect her passion for women’s liberation. By posing socialites of the day as empowered classical heroines, for instance, Madame Yevonde was challenging conventions within society as well as photography.
Madame Yevonde died in 1975, leaving her life’s work to her assistant. This collection “included over 3,000 sets of the original 1930’s VIVEX tri-colour separation plates and more than twice that number of b/w images on plate and film”. Nearly a decade later The Yevonde Portrait Archive was established to house and promote her groundbreaking work. The Archive chose as its tagline Madame Yevonde’s life motto: Be Original or Die.
By Haley Drolet (Twitter: @HaleyDrolet)
Gibson, Robin & Roberts, Pam. Madame Yevonde: Color, Fantasy and Myth. London. National Portrait Gallery Publications, 1990.