Sunday, 16 March 2008

"Be original or die"


Madame Yevonde (Yevonde Philone Cumbers, 1893 - 1975) was a photographer who pioneered the use of colour in portrait photography.

In 1911, she took an apprenticeship with Lallie Charles, the leading woman portrait photographer of the day. In 1914, having only taken one actual photograph, Madame Yevonde decided to set-up her own studio. Over the years she gained quite a unique and personal style, as well as a name for herself with London society, as a premier portrait photographer. In 1921, she started exhibiting her work at The Royal Photographic Society Annual Exhibition.

Self portrait with Vivex camera, 1937

Self portrait with image of Hecate, 1940

Madame Yevonde found the early thirties very successful. She started experimenting with the newly available Vivex Colour process, invented by Dr. D. A. Spencer. At the time, few found colour in photographs to be acceptable or natural and were actively hostile towards her new work. Yevonde made it her personal mission to convert the myopic public into seeing colour again.
In 1932, Yevonde hired the Albany Gallery in London to exhibit 70 of her colour and her monochrome prints. This was the first exhibition of colour portrait work in England by any photographer and it received a glowing review in the British Journal of Photography ... Mme Yevonde has most emphatically established her place among the leading and most up-to-date exponents of photographic portraiture.

Artist with workmen in foreground
The Queen Mary

In 1933, she flung herself wholeheartedly into her colour work and over the next six years did her most creative work. She was now being sought after by members of London society, including the Duke and Duchess of Kent, who wanted more nontraditional, adventurous portraiture. She was also sought after to do big advertising jobs by companies such as Christie's, Daimler, and in 1936 she was commissioned by Fortune Magazine to shoot the Queen Mary on her maiden voyage.

Edwardian girl, advertising shot c.1938

Shelling peas, advertising shot c.1937

Study of cover of Woman & Beauty Magazine, 1937

During this time she began her theme of Goddesses and photographed members of the London elite as mythological characters including Medusa, Europa, Daphne, and Venus. Today, this is probably the work that Madame Yevonde is best known for.

Mrs Edward Mayer as Medusa

Lady Milbanke as Penthesila, Queen of the Amazons

The Hon. Mrs Bryan Guinness (Lady Diana Mosley) as Venus

In 1939, war broke out and soon after Colour Photographs Ltd., where the Vivex color process was manufactured and processed, closed. Madame Yevonde was forced to stop working in colour. To add insult to injury, this same year her estranged husband, the playwright Edgar Middleton, died. Even after the war ended, the Vivex colour process was never to become a standard again. Instead of settling with any other form of colour process, Yevonde began experimenting with black and white again and soon developed an interest in solarisation.

She continued working up until her death in 1975, just two weeks short of her 83rd birthday, but is chiefly remembered for her work of the 1930s, which did much to make colour photography accepted.

Editions of Madame Yevonde's work are available through The Yevonde Portrait Archive.

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Pigtown-Design said...

As always, you're a font of knowledge. Thanks for the education!


An Aesthete's Lament said...

My eyes thank you. My brain thanks you. I love Madame Yevonde's saturated colors. There was a male photographer in Britain who did similar work, to my mind, Angus McBean.

franki durbin said...

amen to that thought: be original or die. I love it!!! and I love learning more about madame herself, such an inspiration. thank you!