Our reopening exhibition Yevonde: Life and Colour will explore the life and career of Yevonde – a pioneering London photographer who spearheaded the use of colour photography in the 1930s.

But who was she? And why is she so important? Join exhibition curator Clare Freestone as she offers a beginner’s guide to this brilliant innovator.

Yevonde holding a Vivex One-Shot camera to her eye, against a blue background

Self-Portrait with Vivex One-Shot Camera
1937
Tri-colour separation negative
National Portrait Gallery, London
Purchased with support from the Portrait Fund, 2021 (x223230)


‘Be original or die would be a good motto for photographers to adopt … let them put life and colour into their work’
(Yevonde, 1936)

Independent photographer

Yevonde was a vivacious and adaptable photographer operating her London studio throughout most of the twentieth century.

Feminist

A suffragette at the height of the cause and lifelong supporter of women’s rights Yevonde took up photography in 1914 as a route to independence. In 1921 she declared ‘portrait photography without women would be a sorry business’. As a member of the Women’s Provisional Club for professional women she spoke out ‘in no phase of modern life has women’s influence proved so stimulating as in photography.’

Sepia print of young Yevonde, seated with her hair in plaits

Young Yevonde
Unknown photographer, c.1910
Sepia toned gelatin silver print, 173 x 120mm
Family archive of Chloe Keighly-Peach

Colour pioneer

‘Colour photography after dillying and dallying by the wayside, in the end arrived’.

In the interwar years of rapid change and technological advances Yevonde became a pioneer working with the Vivex colour process. Her commitment to colour photography and imaginative technique resulted in a unique vision still fresh today.

Marguerite Strickland dressed in red, in front of pampas grass

Marguerite Strickland
1935, published in the Sketch, 12 June 1935
Tri-colour separation negative (colour carbon print exhibited), 381 x 304mm
National Portrait Gallery, London
Purchased with support from the Portrait Fund, 2021 (x222412)

Technique and vision

Yevonde shot onto three negatives through filters to create a separation image ready for printing. Her Vivex colour Carbro-type prints were made at the first colour print service for professional photographers in the UK.

Yevonde celebrated the fact that colour photography had ‘no history, no tradition, no old masters, but only a future!’ She experimented with lighting, depth-of-field, compositional props, reflective materials and patterns.

A lens on a table, with green and red dots

Lens
1932
Tri-colour separation negative (modern print exhibited)
National Portrait Gallery, London
Purchased with support from the Portrait Fund, 2021 (x221922)

Yevonde in print

From 1914 Yevonde’s portraits of society and celebrities appeared in readily consumed illustrated magazines. In the 1920s and 30s she added advertisements and fashion to her repertoire and captured the modern woman’s androgynous features in her double portraits.

Magazine page titled The Model Sapho, with a photograph of a seated woman holding four balloons

The Model Sapho (Meum Stewart)
Published in the Sketch, 8 November 1922
National Portrait Gallery, London

Profile images of Edgar and Yevonde, each looking out from the centre; their names are below their images

Edgar and Yevonde Middleton
1929
Gelatin silver print montage, 277 x 206mm
Family archive of Chloe Keighly-Peach

Colourful characters

Yevonde believed in the contemporary supremacy of colour and the need for innovation in the heavily populated field of portrait photography. She described royal patronage as ‘the peak in a photographer’s career’ and photographed George VI’s royal coronation guests in 1937 – bringing a new vision to glorified tradition.

Lord and Lady Mountbatten in formal wear in front of a white curtain with small yellow stars

Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten
1937
Vivex print, 363 x 272mm
National Portrait Gallery, London
Given by the photographer, 1971 (P871(4))

Modern women – domesticity and allure 

Yevonde herself a modern independent woman embraced the commercial sector. Her intensely hued scenarios provide wry observations of the dual demands on readers of colourful new women’s titles.

A seated woman wearing a yellow dress and a hat shells peas from a basket on her lap

Shelling Peas (Rosemary Chance)
1937, cover for Woman and Beauty, July 1938
Tri-colour separation negative (colour carbon print exhibited), 381 x 304mm
National Portrait Gallery, London
Purchased with support from the Portrait Fund, 2021 (x220584)

Mythical fantasies

Narrative art, modernism, mythology and surrealism pervade Yevonde’s portraiture, still-life, commercial work and most obviously her fantastical Goddesses. 

Goddesses and Others announced Yevonde’s move to Mayfair in 1935. Guests from a fancy dress ball and other female acquaintances were made-up, dressed-up, propped and preened, dramatically lit, cropped and composed to reimagine powerful female deities.

Yevonde’s still life allowed her quirky imagination to run wild- to create Surrealist scenarios, to communicate through colour and form.

A blue image of a woman's head and shoulders next to a bust sculpture on a plinth

Beatrice Eden (Beckett) as Clio (also identified as Dido)
1937, published in the Tatler, 6 March 1940
Tri-colour separation negative
National Portrait Gallery, London
Purchased with support from the Portrait Fund, 2021 (x220076)

The head and upper body of a rocking horse against a striped background

Rocking Horse
1938, cover for Eve’s Journal, September 1938
Tri-colour separation negative (modern print exhibited)
National Portrait Gallery, London
Purchased with support from the Portrait Fund, 2021 (x221998)

What next?

At the end of the 1930s Yevonde’s husband of nineteen years died and the opportunity for colour work ceased with the onset of war. Yevonde adapted and throughout the 1940s experimented with montage and on-location portraits. Her 1960s foray into Solarisation resulted in strikingly immediate portraits. Yevonde’s series of Distinguished Women made at the end of the decade celebrated the talents of her gender once more.

Pamphlet cover titled Some Distinguished Women, with the small figure of a woman standing next to a large camera

Some Distinguished Women exhibition pamphlet
1968
Exhibition pamphlet, 211 x 153mm
National Portrait Gallery

Yevonde: Life and Colour is supported by the CHANEL Culture Fund, and builds on Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture, a major partnership project that aims to enhance the representation of women in the Gallery’s Collection.

Kindly supported by:

Chanel Culture Fund logo



Comments

We are currently unable to accept new comments, but any past comments are available to read below.

Julian Bernstein

05 September 2023, 15:25

My Mother Ruby Bernstein, was Yevonde PA and Press officer in the early 1950's . I have a batch of photos of my mother and of me , I have fond memories of visits to the studio .My wife and i will visit the show on Thursday the 12 October @ 15,00 hr , i can bring the photos .

Milena Tate

31 August 2023, 10:39

Seeing the range of images online is fascinating! Such a wonderful archive. I can't wait to see more.

Kent Hendrick

27 June 2023, 02:30

Such breathtakingly gorgeous colours ! As I made many dye transfer prints ( from three B&W images or colour separation negatives ) in the 70s and 80s ... I cannot wait to see these original/re-imaged prints with my own eyes and senses as soon as possible ...

Marilyn Bailey

16 June 2023, 13:17

How inspirational and exciting. The photographs look cutting edge and appealing - and make me dive for my painting easel. Can't wait to see the exhibition.

Michael Pritchard

30 March 2023, 10:15

She's a fascinating figure. A member of the Royal Photographic Society in 1921, she rejoined in 1933, became a Fellow from 1940.

Vicki Portanier

28 March 2023, 09:01

This preview of the forthcoming exhibition is good . Yevonde was so advanced and highly inspirational and at a time when it was very much a man’s world . I can’t wait to see the exhibition and the newly refurbished NPG .

David Roberts

25 March 2023, 09:27

Wonderful historic and innovative images.

Magdalen Kit Fong FRY

24 March 2023, 20:40

Very impressive exhibition of the taster shown. The vivid colours of her photographs are extremely well presented. Can't wait to come to the gallery. My father in Hong Kong was an avid photographer who developed and enlarged his own films at home in the 1950s & was a member of MRSA. He had no patience in anything apart from waiting for the right lighting or someone wearing the right colour to pass under an archway.