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Vibrant and Innovative: Yevonde's Genius in the World of Color Photography

Updated: Oct 16, 2023


Recently reopened after a comprehensive global refurbishment, The National London Portrait Gallery has made a resounding artistic statement with a delightful and vibrant exhibition dedicated to the remarkable early 20th-century woman photographer, Yevonde Philone Middleton.


Born on January 5, 1893, in Streatham, Yevonde Philone Cumbers embarked on a remarkable journey. Her education took her from the liberal and progressive Lingholt Boarding School in Hindhead to the Guilde Internationale in Paris, with detours at boarding schools in Belgium and France. Her heroine was the women's liberationist Mary Wollstonecraft, leading her to join the Suffragette movement in 1910. A suffragette was a member of an activist women's organization in the early 20th century fighting for the right to vote in the United Kingdom.

Although she was active in suffragette activities, Yevonde shifted her focus after answering an advertisement in The Suffragette for a photographer's apprentice. She interviewed with Lena Connell and secured a three-year apprenticeship with portrait photographer Lallie Charles, igniting her lifelong passion for photography.

In 1914, equipped with the technical foundation she gained under Charles's guidance and a £250 gift from her father, the 21-year-old Yevonde established her own studio at 92 Victoria Street in London. She quickly gained recognition by inviting well-known figures to sit for her portraits, which soon graced the pages of society magazines like Tatler and The Sketch. Her style evolved from the rigid "pouter pigeon" look of Lallie Charles to a more formal yet creative approach, with subjects often gazing away from the camera and the clever use of props.

By 1921, Madame Yevonde had become a well-known and respected portrait photographer, prompting her move to larger premises at 100 Victoria Street. Here, she took on advertising commissions and photographed numerous influential personalities of her time.

In the early 1930s, Yevonde boldly ventured into color photography, embracing the new Vivex color process, despite its mixed reception. Her dedication and countless hours of experimentation yielded remarkable results. In 1932, she presented an exhibition of her portrait work at the Albany Gallery, featuring both monochrome and color images, which garnered enthusiastic reviews.

Yevonde was unafraid of challenges and believed that women were better suited for embracing color photography because of its significance in their lives.

In 1936, she was commissioned by Fortune magazine to photograph the final stages of the new Cunard liner, the Queen Mary—a departure from her usual work, yet a successful venture.

Yevonde's most renowned work emerged from a theme party held on March 5, 1935, where guests dressed as Roman and Greek gods and goddesses.

This extraordinarily creative phase in Yevonde's career was relatively brief. In late 1939, Colour Photographs Ltd closed, marking the end of the Vivex process. It was the second major blow that year, following the passing of her husband, playwright Edgar Middleton, in April. Yevonde returned to black and white photography, producing notable portraits. She continued working until her death, just two weeks before her 83rd birthday, but it's her 1930s work that endures, contributing significantly to the respectability of color photography.


The exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London was meticulously curated, with a profound appreciation for the artist, by exhibition curator Clare Freestone, author Natalie Haynes, and historian Lucinda Gosling.

I must highlight the meticulous attention given to the painted walls' details and color combinations, which enhanced every one of Yevonde's photos, seamlessly guiding the audience through the different phases of her life with a thoughtfully coordinated color scheme. The exhibition's clever and elegant scenography, dividing the modest-sized display into distinct sections, not only encouraged viewers to stop and ponder in each section but also made them reluctant to simply pass through.

The presentation of Yevonde's personal archive and materials was beautifully arranged and offered a glimpse into the artist's creative process, akin to stepping into her studio and experiencing a time capsule.

Additionally, the concise yet illuminating captions and texts adorning the walls provided a comprehensive insight into the life of this exceptional artist.

We anticipate this exhibition will embark on a journey, allowing a broader audience to immerse themselves in the world of Yevonde—an eccentric, potent, and vibrantly colorful realm.


Exhibition: Yevonde Life and Colour

National Portrait Gallery.

St. Martin's Pl, London WC2H 0HE, United Kingdom

22 June - 15 October 2023


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