The Work of Madame Yevonde

This exhibition features the work of this pioneering photographer who set up her first studio in London in 1914 and developed a method of producing vivid colour prints, particularly associated with her famous portraits of society women as Greek and Roman goddesses.

Born in Streatham, south London in 1893 to a prosperous family, Yevonde Cumbers enjoyed a childhood full of visits to the theatre, costume parties and a busy social calendar. When she was sixteen Yevonde was sent to a convent school in Belgium and bored with her studies discovered the Suffragette Movement, which was to become one of the greatest passions of her life.

On her return to Britain she initially threw herself into working for the movement but soon realised that she lacked sufficient strength of will to devote her life to the cause although she was convinced that 'to be independent was the greatest thing in life' and set out to find a career which would provide her with complete financial and professional independence. Inspired by a newspaper advertisement for an assistant in a top London photographic studio she decided, aged seventeen, to become a photographer. Indicative of the role that photography would play later in her life, she rejected an opportunity to work with Lena Connell, the veteran photographer of the Suffragette Movement, favouring instead the leading society photographer of the day, Lallie Charles.

Yevonde worked in Lallie Charles's Curzon Street studio for a year, learning how to handle aristocratic and sophisticated clients, constructing fictional worlds of glamour and beauty to satisfy their desires. She was now eager for more practical experience and was transferred to 'the Works', where she learnt how to spot and retouch prints.

In 1914, realising that Lallie Charles's heyday was over and that her romantic Edwardian treatment of women as submissive objects of beauty no longer reflected the new aspirations of women, Yevonde decided to set up on her own. She persuaded her father to provide the capital and rented an inexpensive studio in Victoria, working under the title 'Madame Yevonde - Portrait Photographer'. She understood the time was right to create a more contemporary approach to studio portraiture, with a variety of poses and backgrounds and business flourished despite rival competition. In 1921, she started exhibiting her work at The Royal Photographic Society Annual Exhibition and she also moved to a larger studio and began doing advertising work.

Madame Yevonde found the early thirties very successful and busy, yet she was becoming bored with black and white photography and started experimenting with the newly available Vivex Color process, invented by Dr. D. A. Spencer. At the time, her fellow photographers and the general public found color in photographs to be unacceptable and unnatural and were actively hostile to her new work. Yevonde made it her personal mission to convert the color-blind public to see color again.

In 1932, Yevonde hired the Albany Gallery in London to exhibit 70 of her color and her monochrome prints. This was the first exhibition of color 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.

In 1933, she again moved to a larger studio and flung herself wholeheartedly into her color work and over the next 6 years did her most creative work. She was now being sought after by members of London's high-society, including the Duke and Duchess of Kent, who wanted more untraditional, artsy 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. During this time she began her theme of Goddesses and photographed members of the London elite as mythological characters including Medusa, Europa, Daphe, and Venus. Today, this is probably the work that Madame Yevonde is best known for.

In 1939, World War II broke out and soon after Colour Photographs Ltd., where the Vivex color process was manufactured and processed, closed down and Madame Yevonde was forced to stop working in color, leaving her work void of joy and enthusiasm. This same year her slightly estranged husband, Edgar died. Even after the war ended, the Vivex color process was never to become a standard again. Instead of settling with any other form of color process, Yevonde began experimenting with black and white and soon developed an interest in solarization.

Over the years, Madame Yevonde continued to photograph commercially; in 1964, at the age of 71 she was commissioned to photograph the country of Ethiopia. She also continued to exhibit her work in group and retrospective shows. In 1971, she offered her life's work to the National Portrait Gallery in London. When Madame Yevonde died on December 22, 1975, she left all of her negatives to her photo assistant Ann Forshaw, and they eventually passed to their present owner, Lawrence Hole..

For more images, please click here.