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Yevonde: The woman who revolutionised colour photography

“Portrait photography without women would be a sorry business.” (Yevonde Middleton, 1921)

I walked into the Yevonde: Life and Colour exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery wondering what to expect. I felt ignorant ever having heard of her before when it seemed her work was all anyone could talk about. I wanted to understand the hype so I took my morning break and headed to the exhibition room.

I was met with black and white monochrome photographs plastered over the walls. My first instinct was to walk right out. I appreciate photography but it is by no means an interesting medium to me. I quickly glanced over these before focusing on the information on the wall next to the portraits.

Madame Yevonde (1893-1975) was the first British photographer to exhibit colour portraits. She was born and lived in London, where she became wrapped up in the suffragette movement as a member of the WSPU, later going on to serve in the Women’s Land Army.

This revelation suddenly breathed life into her photos, as I began to notice the number of soldiers featured in her portraits alongside an impressive range of celebrities from A. A. Milne to Paul Robeson. As it turns out, Yevonde began taking photos of celebrity ‘workers in war-time’ which were reproduced in The Sketch and was responsible for helping families identify their loved ones who were lost during wartime through portraits she had taken of them.

There was a sharp transition in the exhibition from her early work to her work following the war. Yevonde became interested in colour photography in the aftermath of World War I; despite it being an expensive and complex undertaking, she remained undeterred. Her work reflected a renewed optimism in the wake of destruction and devastation with its bright colours, quirky costumes and creative settings.

The most striking image which comes to mind is Joan Maude (1932) with her fiery hair posed in red monochrome. However, I would argue her later series, ‘A Galaxy of Goddesses’ (1935), triumphs over everything else. She was inspired by the costumed guests at an Olympian-themed charity ball she attended that same year. Yevonde asked twenty-three women she knew within her social network to pose as mythical characters. ‘Lady Dorothy Warren as Ceres’ and ‘Olga Burnett (née Herard) as Persephone’ stood out to me for their use of composition and colour, but perhaps it was just the ancient history student in me which drew my eye.

Tragedy struck with World War II, but Yevonde continued to work throughout the war. Business was slow to recover: she set up a brief partnership with Maurice Broomfield (1916-2010), whose work focused on the rapid transition from the industrial revolution towards new technologies. They eventually went their separate ways.

The landscape of colour photography changed during these years as colour printers were forced to shut down. Yevonde’s portraits reverted to black and white monochrome during this period. It was not until the late 1950s and 1960s that she began experimenting with Solarisation to produce distinct portraits which fell between a positive and a negative print. I was slightly underwhelmed by the end of the exhibition given the build-up of all her work, but it kept true to the fluctuations of Yevonde’s work over her life which I appreciated.

This exhibition is worth a visit if you are interested in photography or are willing to learn more about it. It is even better if you are fortunate enough to see the Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion & Design exhibition at the Ashmolean; Yevonde’s work serves as a nice continuation from its brief section on the rise of colour photography. I learnt a lot about photography and even have a newfound liking for it, which is something I never expected.

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