December 22: The First Woman of Colour Photography, ‘Madame Yevonde’, was born in Streatham, south London in 1893 and died on this date in 1957. The professional nom-de-plume of the extraordinary Yevonde Cumbers Middleton, she made a career and an art form out of her suffragette commitment, pioneering prowess in colour photography, and high society origins.
Her portraits of anybody who was anybody, from Barbara Cartland to Noel Coward appeared in the glossies of the 1930s, in the pages of Tatler, People and Sketch. To our backward gaze they depict the blithe spirit of years before the Second World War, as if Madam Yevonde could see them coming and had made haste to gather the rosebuds in the darkening of the storm; there actually is a sense of foreboding in the surrealism she tempered to her rather kitsch purposes.
After a childhood spent in a prosperous family, Yevonde was sent at sixteen to a convent school in Belgium. The Suffragette Movement attracted her and though she lacked the commitment to devote her life to the cause, she took away a will to be financially independent as ‘the greatest thing in life’, and determined to find a professional career after seeing an advertisement for an assistant in a top London photographic studio.
Significantly she passed up an apprenticeship with Lena Connell (later Beatrice Cundy) (1875-1949), the veteran photographer of the Suffragette Movement, whose rather austere portraits below, shot in the classical Victorian daylight studio, may not have excited her, despite the importance of the sitters.
At seventeen she became a photographer with one of the most commercially successful women portraitists of the first decade of the 1900s, Irish-born Charlotte (‘Lallie’) Charles.
Lallie and her sister Rita, encouraged by the success of Alice Hughes, opened their first photographic studio in 1896, at The Nook in Regent’s Park, London, later moving to 39a Curzon Street, Mayfair, Westminster, where Yevonde worked in the studio for a year, learning how to handle aristocratic and sophisticated clients, then was transferred to ‘the Works’, where she learnt how to spot and “the use of heavy retouching to flatter chins, waists and hips, and how to work over negatives with a pencil to produce a softened, romantic effect”
Many of Lallie’s clients were actors, some also being members of the aristocracy, and her photographs promote their dramatic roles and splendid costumes. It was this theatrical side of her experience in apprenticeship that clearly most impressed Yevonde Middleton.
By 1914 Yevonde realised that Lallie Charles’s heyday was over; her mentor had suffered the death of her second husband in the war and it was noted in the London Gazette that she had been declared bankrupt on July 28 1915, after which her brother Robert took over the studio before she died in 1919, aged fifty.
The young photographer decided to set up on her own. Her father provided the capital and she rented an inexpensive studio in Victoria, styling herself ‘Madame Yevonde – Portrait Photographer’. She sought to create a more contemporary approach to studio portraiture, with a variety of poses and backgrounds. Despite much rival competition her business flourished.
Work survives from her years with Lallie Charles (see right) and it is clear she learned her lessons well; her portraits then were indistinguishable from those of her mentor. As she became more confident, she ventured into the use of props and then employed more theatrical tableaux vivant to represent the actresses that flocked to her studio as they had to Lallie Charles’.
As one of the world’s pioneer users of colour photography, Madame Yevonde in her autobiography In Camera (1940) identifies as ‘a great liberation’ the arrival in 1930 of a viable colour process. Yevonde keenly embraced the potential of the colour photograph as an essential modernism, something long awaited by photographers since its invention.
The colour process that she used from its introduction, Vivex, was a subtractive process devised by leading colour chemist D. A. Spencer, a variant of Trichrome Carbro, which in turn was derived from the Carbon process. Unlike the first commercially successful colour transparency, the Autochrome invented by the Lumiére brothers, Vivex enabled multiple copies to be made.
It was patented in 1928 and 1929 by Colour Photographs Ltd of Willesden. It involved three monochrome tri-colour separation negatives of quarter-plate size being exposed for couple of seconds in a camera constructed to split the image on to each film simultaneously behind colour filters.
The photographer marked them red (magenta), blue (cyan) and yellow. They were then were sent to the processing plant at Willesden for enlargement and printing, since it was a complex industrial-scale process. The three positives were squeezed wet onto their correct colour gelatine sensitised with chromic acid, potassium bromide and water, transferring the image when the positive and the gelatine were stripped apart and floated onto cellophane sheets in register, yellow first, onto the desired matt or glossy surface. The cellophane then was chemically removed. As the name of the process infers the result was vivid, fully-saturated colour.
In an intriguing and tantalising 1940 self-portrait Yevonde represents herself as a goddess of the Vivex process surrounded by her attributes; negative hanger, chemicals, heavy rubber glove, measures, lenses, flash bulbs and a very long cable release; and the symbols of colour, including two butterflies and a swinging light bulb which because of its movement appears out of register. On top of the gilt frame in which she poses is a portrait print in the process of drying on a rack, its colours not quite fully fixed. This image is clearly made by a photographer who has a very deep knowledge of the technical aspects her medium, but does it mean that by the end of the 30s Yevonde was handling the processing of some of her images for special effects after, unfortunately due to the war, Colour Photographs Ltd. closed in 1940? Regardless, her daring and triumphant use of the medium of colour photography is already apparent in this glorious 1932 portrait of actor Joan Maude; only the most confident photographer would pose an auburn-haired woman against this vivid red background.
In the exhibition that Yevonde held in her studio at Berkeley Square entitled Goddesses and Others in July 1935 she and her sitters were inspired by an Olympian theme party held at Claridge’s in London. In her 1935 Goddesses series, Yevonde photographed society beauties dressed as Greek and Roman goddesses and icons drawing inspiration from mythological stories she’d been taught in school, the many costume parties, pantomimes and plays of her well-to-do childhood, and her own imagination.
“Be original or die!” was her motto, and in 1936 Yevonde extolled the independent professionalism and the contribution of women in photography in a lecture to the Second Annual Conference of the Business and Professional Women’s Federation in Paris. She stated her strong belief that women are better portraitists than men because of their eye for detail and their intuition.
In a 1933 article entitled “Why Colour?” Yevonde responded to traditional photographers who scorned colour as ‘chocolate-box’ prettification. She dared use luminous reds and yellows and vibrant highlights, and under or over-exposed negatives.
Arethusa was shot “with green cellophane over the lens. […] I achieved what I wanted… no red tones and a greenish quality in the flesh” At the bottom of the close-up (above left), glass fish are used as a motif, and appear in other shots as a kind of register in various shades and states of iridescence; they look as if they have been somehow contact printed on top of the image. These experiments advanced Yevonde’s knowledge of color balance and capacity to interpret it creatively, even to venture back into monochrome using colour materials to produce a far richer tint than the toners used on black and white prints could ever achieve.
In Mrs Anthony Eden as Clio, the Muse of History, a similar effect might have been achieved with cyanotype, the blueprint once used by architects and earlier still by one of the first women in photography Anna Atkins. This image may remind us of that antique process, but the still-red lips and the faint warmth of the skin is the result of Yevonde using blue cellophane over the lens. The result is to identify the crop-haired female subject with the male sculpted bust, introducing an androgyny that empowers the Muse. Significantly Anthony Eden was Britain’s Foreign Affairs Minister and became Foreign Secretary that year and supported Neville Chamberlain’s discredited efforts to preserve peace through reasonable concessions to Germany.
She scoured children’s toy shops and street markets for props and for her Medusa found snakes of bright green rubber which curl around the tightly cropped face: “Medusa was a cold voluptuary and sadist,’ she wrote, “we painted the lips […] a dull purple and made her face chalk-white” thus producing another of Yevonde’s powerful women.
Surrealism, and particularly the brand practiced by Man Ray, was a strong influence on Yevonde’s work. Her Niobe is a direct homage to Man Ray’s famous photograph with glass tears of 1932. In her case, the glycerin she used instead of glass beads mixed with her subject’s mascara and caused pain. Yevonde regarded its rendition of emotion as making it the most successful in the series.
What is most remarkable in these theatrical portraits is the compliance of Yevonde’s subjects, all from high society, who are prepared to go along with the fiction and who cooperate by summoning melancholy, and often quite extreme, expressions.
While portraits she made after coming to such widespread notice for her Goddesses and Others exhibition were no longer based on mythology, there nevertheless continues a thread of emotional intensity and the Thirties Rococo quality of wistful yearning that distinguishes her work as can be seen (above) when she photographs the amateur aviator Helen Cherry.
A hint of apparently wind-blown fabric, soft focus and strong, overexposed lighting from below to simplify the linear qualities creates Ariel, who appears to float weightlessly, and is reminiscent of a car mascot from the era of the classic 1930s automobile.
When the war closed the Vivex factory and she returns through circumstance to black-and-white, she is still experimental in her approach, as in this solarised portrait of the much beloved gamin Shakesperean and film actor Dame Dorothy Tutin.
In her essay Intericonicity in Disguise in Madame Yevonde’s Goddesses series and Cindy Sherman’s History Portraits/Old Masters in E-rea:Revue électronique d’études sur le monde anglophone, Julie Morére compares Madame Yevonde with Cindy Sherman. Though it is not clear that Sherman is consciously referring to Yevonde, there are connections that can be convincingly made between the two as they draw on mythology and art history, and both practice the self-portrait (see below).
In Yevonde’s use of a ‘soft’, melodramatic, and often camp Surrealism, another parallel may be drawn with compatriot Angus McBean, who was contemporaneously photographing thespians in London [and both have echoes in the work of French art photographer couple Pierre et Gilles]. Significantly, though he practiced a similar domesticated surrealism for the purpose of creating playbills and front-of-house prints n the 1930s and 40s, McBean did not touch colour until after the war, well into the fifties. Both were aware of the theatrical applications of surrealism and of the power of a performative photography.