Yevonde Colour Archive

    Yevonde with Vivex One-Shot Camera,    by Yevonde,    1937,    NPG x223231,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Yevonde with Vivex One-Shot Camera, by Yevonde, 1937, NPG x223231, © National Portrait Gallery, London

In 2021, the National Portrait Gallery acquired its most significant colour archive by a woman photographer to date. The purchase of 2000 tri-colour separation negatives by Yevonde (1893-1975) marked an important commitment to study and celebrate her pioneering colour work of the 1930s. This major addition to the Gallery’s Collection was made possible with support from the Portrait Fund.

Since then, conservation, research and digitisation of these negatives, generously supported by the CHANEL Culture Fund as part of the Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture project, has enabled a new depth of understanding into Yevonde’s colour photography, uncovering many images, most of which had not been seen before. An important part of this research was showcased in the exhibition Yevonde: Life and Colour (22 June – 15 October 2023), which built on the Reframing Narratives project and its aim to foreground women represented in the Gallery’s Collection.

Born in Streatham in south London, Yevonde set up her business just before the First World War and was already an important photographer by the 1930s when she created her glamorous colour portraits of high society women and surreal still lifes. She began practising colour photography using the newly invented Vivex process from Colour Photographs Ltd of Willesden, in north-west London, who printed her negatives. The process was costly and required three panchromatic glass plate negatives exposed through coloured filters for printing with yellow, red/magenta and blue/cyan. Prints made using these three individual colours were superimposed to give a final full colour image. Yevonde’s experiments went as far as sometimes ‘upsetting the balance of the three negatives’, as she put it, by using filters such as green cellophane over the lens.

    Rosemary Chance (née Gregory-Hood),    by Yevonde,    1937,    NPG x220593,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Rosemary Chance by Yevonde, 1937, NPG x220593 © National Portrait Gallery, London
    Vivien Leigh,    by Yevonde,    1936,    NPG x222907,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Vivien Leigh by Yevonde, 1936, NPG x222907 © National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1932, Yevonde’s work was shown at the first exhibition of colour photography in Britain. Photographs by Yevonde opened at The Albany Gallery, 17 Sackville Street, London. With the ambition of launching herself as a portraitist in colour, the show included portraits and still lifes, many of which have been uncovered in the archive. These initial experiments included Margaret Redhead and her son Vere Harmsworth, Newspaper Girls, the future BBC television announcer Betty Cowell illustrating A Day in the Life of a Debutante, alongside models such as Eileen Hawthorne and Joan Maude. Yevonde was one of several photographers working in colour at this time and tirelessly advocated for the recognition of colour photography as a fine art and not as mere representation, championing its merits in lectures, articles and exhibitions, and declaring, ‘If we are going to have colour photographs, for heaven’s sake let’s have a riot of colour!’

    Margaret with her son Vere Harmsworth (Margaret Redhead; Vere Harold Esmond Harmsworth, 3rd Viscount Rothermere),    by Yevonde,    1932,    NPG x222108,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Margaret Redhead with her son Vere Harmsworth by Yevonde, 1932, NPG x222108 © National Portrait Gallery, London
    Newspaper Girls, Fleet Street,    by Yevonde,    1932,    NPG x220237,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Newspaper Girls, Fleet Street by Yevonde, 1932, NPG x220237 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Yevonde’s experimentation with colour culminated in her most important body of work: the ‘Goddesses’ series from 1935. Inspired by a fund-raising ball with an Olympian theme, she photographed women dressed as Arethusa, Medusa, Venus, Persephone, Ariadne, Niobe, reimagining her sitters as powerful deities. Pushing the boundaries of studio practice, she experimented with props, backdrops, and deliberate framing and cropping. Alternative poses from the series, found within the archive, enrich our understanding of Yevonde’s working methods.

The legacy of Yevonde’s colour work spans ten extremely prolific years and includes commercial photography for several women’s magazines, most notably Eve’s Journal, Woman and Beauty and Modern Home. Features for these new colour publications, as well as advertising work for food and cosmetic brands, allowed Yevonde to exploit the new possibilities brought by the use of colour with thrilling imagery. She proclaimed: ‘Hurrah! We are in for exciting times. Red hair, uniforms, exquisite complexions and coloured fingernails will come into their own!’

Lesser known are Yevonde’s still lifes in which she pushed further her experimentations with colour. A lobster, a shell, a toadstool, a red cabbage, a rocking horse, plaster casts and masks are some of the objects found in her fantastically crafted compositions. Constructed with quirky elements and a bold colour palette, her still lifes take their cue from surrealist iconography and are a reminder of how unique and original she was.

In 1939, the Vivex process ceased to trade and Yevonde returned to producing black and white photographs, continuing to work almost until her death at the age of 82.

This incredible archive joins a previous gift of Vivex prints offered personally by Yevonde in 1971, which established the National Portrait Gallery as major custodians of the work of one of the most significant and innovative women photographers of the 20th century.

Explore further

Find out more about the work that has gone into conserving, researching and cataloguing, and digitising this archive below.