Yevonde: Pioneer of colour

The National Portrait Gallery reopens this week following a comprehensive redisplay of their collection. According to chief curator Alison Smith, the rehang features a broader range of media and diverse sitters, better reflecting contemporary audiences.

It seems only fitting that the gallery reopens with ‘Yevonde: Life and Colour’, an exhibition dedicated to Yevonde, one of Britain's most prolific female photographers. We take a closer look at the portraits produced by the photographer at the height of her career.

Vivien Leigh by Yevonde,1936 © National Portrait Gallery, London

A dedicated advocate for women’s rights, Yevonde Middleton (known professionally as Madame Yevonde) was introduced to photography through her involvement with the suffragette movement.

First establishing a studio in London at just 21 years old, Yevonde became a leading society and fashion photographer capturing the 1920s-30s female fashion revolution. Her photographs often featured women wearing looser fits and boxier clothing and appeared in Tatler and Sketch magazines.

Whilst taking photographs of eminent members of society Yevonde started to experiment with colour. She pioneered new techniques such as solarisation, even when colour photography was not considered a serious medium.

Edith Ellaline Brougham (née Teichman), Lady Brougham and Vaux by Yevonde,1935 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Edith Ellaline Brougham

In 1935 Yevonde produced her most famous body of work 'Goddess & Others', a series of beautiful women dressed as Greek and Roman goddesses, exhibiting the photographs at her Berkeley Square studio in London.

One of the most striking photos from this dreamy collection features a portrait of Edith Hart-Davis, who later became the wife of Victor Brougham, 4th Baron of Brougham and Vaux.

Yevonde originally intended for Edith to depict princess Andromeda chained naked to rocks by the coast after her mother boasted about her beauty.

However, Yevonde restaged the image, believing it looked too intense for her audience, reimagining Edith as the weightless flying spirit Ariel who appears in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'.

The exhibition promoted Yevonde's position as an inventive portraitist, creating daring photographs of women.

Vivien Leigh by Yevonde,1936 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Vivien Leigh

One of Yevonde's most popular colour portraits features British actress Vivien Leigh who earned international recognition and an Academy Award for her unforgettable portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’.

For this dynamic portrait, Yevonde used the Vivex colour process. This subtractive process employs three negative plates - cyan, magenta and yellow - creating a full-colour range enhancing the punchy red background.

In 1932 when addressing the Royal Photographic Society Yevonde stated ‘If we are going to have colour photographs, for heaven’s sake let’s have a riot of colour, none of your wishy-washy hand tinted effects’. This portrait very much demonstrates Yevonde fulfilling her own dictum.

‘Yevonde: Life and Colour’ will build on the National Portrait Gallery’s three-year project ‘Reframing Narratives: Women In Portraiture’ which aims to improve representation of women in the gallery’s collection. The exhibition runs from 22 June - 15 October 2023. For more information and booking click here.

The National Portrait Gallery reopens on the 22nd June 2023.

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