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Madame Yevonde

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Madame Yevonde, by Madame Yevonde, 1940 - NPG P620 - © Yevonde Portrait Archive

© Yevonde Portrait Archive

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Madame Yevonde

by Madame Yevonde
colour dye transfer print, 1940
14 7/8 in. x 12 in. (378 mm x 305 mm)
Purchased, 1995
Primary Collection
NPG P620

Sitterback to top

  • Madame Yevonde (1893-1975), Photographer. Sitter in 8 portraits, Artist associated with 325 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Madame Yevonde (1893-1975), Photographer. Artist associated with 325 portraits, Sitter in 8 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This self-portrait combines many aspects of Yevonde's picture making. It was also one of her last pictures made using the Vivex colour process. At the left is a still life composition made up of her photographic chemicals and camera lens. Yevonde sits within a gold old master frame which she often used in her photographs as a framing device. At the top of the picture is a version of one of her 'Goddesses series' portraits, namely The Duchess of Wellington as Hecate. In Greek mythology Hecate was a Goddess of the Underworld, Earth and Moon with powers in sorcery and black magic.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 111 Read entry

    Madame Yevonde, the professional name of Yevonde Cumbers (1893-1975), was a photographer and pioneer in photographic technique. In 1911, she was apprenticed to society photographer Lallie Charles, one of the most commercially successful portraitists of the early 1900s. Three years later, she established her own studio, developing an experimental approach to portraiture and undertaking commercial work. She first exhibited at the Royal Photographic Society in 1921. Her exhibition at London’s Albany Gallery in 1932 included colour prints, which, although dismissed as a fad, nonetheless gained a society following. This self-portrait is among the last she made using the Vivex colour process that she championed. At the top is an image from her iconic colour-portrait series, Goddesses, in which 1930s socialites adopted mythological guises: here, the Duchess of Wellington as Hecate. Through such role-play, Yevonde explored gender and identity. With Vivex’s demise (from 1945), she turned to black and white, and explored solarisation, with its halo-like effects. She remained convinced that ‘to be independent was the greatest thing in life’.

  • Gibson, Robert; Roberts, Pam, Madame Yevonde: Colour, Fantasy & Myth, 1990 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 July - 1 October 1990), p. 95
  • Rideal, Liz, Mirror Mirror: Self-portraits by Women Artists, 2001 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 September 2001 to 20 January 2002), p. 79 Read entry

    This complex work represents a zany updating of the seventeenth-century genre of vanitas or memento mori painting. Yevonde, lit from behind and isolated within a gold frame, holds up a black-and-white glass negative for us to view. There is a heavy chain with keys around her neck, her right hand is encased in a plastic glove, and butterflies - symbolic of tempus fugit - are attached to shutter-release cords slung across the frame. This marriage of apparently haphazard and wilful organisation of space is typical of Yevonde, whose catchphrase was 'Be original or die!' This photograph was one of the last she created using the Vivex colour process (Colour Photography Limited, the firm who developed her work, did not survive World War II).

    Yevonde herself was a colourful character. Born in London, she was educated in Surrey and in Belgium. In 1911 she became apprentice to Lallie Charles and, like Dorothy Wilding, learnt the art of retouching in addition to taking photographs. In 1914 she set up on her own and from then onwards her work was published in society magazines including the Sketch and Tatler. In 1920 she married the playwright Edgar Middleton (d.1939). In 1921 she moved from 92 to 100 Victoria Street, a larger studio where she took photographs of Paul Robeson (1898-1976) and Dame Barbara Cartland (1901-2000) among other celebrities. That year she also lectured on 'Photographic Portraiture from a Woman's Point of View': 'I have tried to show that personality, tact, patience and intuition are all very valuable to the portrait photographer: that women possess them to a far greater degree than men ...' Ever ready to experiment, Yevonde embraced the Vivex colour process in the 1930s and used it for her commission from Fortune magazine to record the grandeur of the Queen Mary. This included portraits of the Zinkeisen sisters at work within the ship on murals later shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Yevonde is best known for her idiosyncratic series 'Goddesses' (1935), inspired by an Olympian theme party held at Claridges and consisting of society beauties dressed as Greek and Roman goddesses. For this, Yevonde let her fertile imagination run wild, and her sitters colluded to produce a remarkable, surreal and avant-garde set of images. In 1940 Yevonde's autobiography In Camera was published and in the 1950s she began experimenting with the solarisation process, which had been discovered by accident by Lee Miller and Man Ray in 1929. In 1971 she donated most of her original prints to the National Portrait Gallery.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 683

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1940back to top

Current affairs

Following the German invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium and France, Neville Chamberlain resigns and Churchill is appointed Prime Minister making the famous speech: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.'
The Battle of Britain ends the Phoney War with Germany's attack on the nation from the air. Britain's cities, airbases and ports are bombed during the Blitz.

Art and science

With little access to sculpture materials, and a bombed out studio Henry Moore starts experimenting with drawings of war subjects. After taking shelter in a London Underground station during an air raid Moore was inspired to begin a series of Shelter Drawings. With a commission from the War Artists Advisory Committee, headed by Kenneth Clark, these became some of the most popular example of official war art.

International

Britain's attempt to defend France against German invasion by landing troops on the French coast ends in failure; France surrenders and Britain is left to face the Axis Powers alone. While the Dunkirk Landings were a failure, the heroic rescue of troops by a fleet of English civilian boats was a victory for morale, and the 'Dunkirk Spirit' came to stand as an emblem of British triumph in adversity.

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