Yevonde shows her true colours in photographs

The suffragette and pioneer in colour photography who once said, “be original or die”, is being celebrated by a major London gallery, writes Claudia Lee.

Having just opened after refurbishment, The National Portrait Gallery’s first temporary show is Yevonde: Life and Colour.

Celebrating Yevonde Cumbers, who was born in Streatham in 1893 and died in 1975, the first British photographer to exhibit colour portraits.

She was the eldest of two daughters. In 1899, the family moved to Bromley.

She achieved fame for her photographs of society women in fancy dress.

Lady in red: the actor Joan Maude by Madame Yevonde, 1932. Picture: National Portrait Gallery

Like our own innovative stars today like Beyoncé or Madonna, Yevonde Cumbers went simply by Yevonde.

Sometimes with Madame added to the end for extra excitement.

When she was 16, Yevonde was sent to a convent school in Belgium.

One day, bored with her studies, she discovered the Suffragette Movement, which would become one of the greatest passions of her life.

On her return to Bromley in 1910, she threw herself into working for the movement. However, soon she feared she was not fully committed.

Still, convinced that ‘to be independent was the greatest thing in life’ she set out to find a career which would provide her with complete financial and professional independence.

Yevonde became an apprentice photographer to Lallie Charles, one of the most commercially successful women portraitists of the time, who had a studio on Curzon Street in Mayfair.

After a three-year apprenticeship learning how to handle aristocratic and sophisticated clients, constructing fictional worlds of glamour and beauty to satisfy their desires, she needed a change.

The Princess of Wales at the reopening of the National Portrait Gallery looking at Yevonde’s work Picture: PA

In 1914, Yevonde understood that Lallie Charles’s heyday was over and that her romantic, aged treatment of women as submissive objects of beauty no longer reflected the new aspirations of women.

Yevonde decided to set up her own studio.

She convinced her father to gift her £250 at the age of 21 and bought a studio at 92 Victoria Street, Victoria, where she began to make a name for herself.

She would invite well-known figures to sit for free and before long her photographs were appearing in society magazines like Tatler and The Sketch.

Her commitment to the feminist movement never left despite her successes. She saw her job as the ideal vehicle to push women ahead.

In 1921, she said: “Portrait photography without women would be a sorry business”.

And as a member of the Women’s Provisional Club for professional women she spoke out.

She said: “In no phase of modern life has women’s influence proved so stimulating as in photography.”

The Princess of Wales speaks to staff at the Yevonde: Life and Colour exhibition. Picture: PA

She understood the time was right to create a more contemporary, colourful approach to studio portraiture at a time when colour was not considered a serious medium for photography.

In an address to the Royal Photographic Society in 1932 she said: “If we are going to have colour photographs, for heaven’s sake let’s have a riot of colour, none of your wishy washy hand-tinted effects”.

Her most renowned body of work is a series of society portraits inspired by a fancy dress party held on March 5, 1935, where guests dressed as Roman and Greek gods and goddesses.

Goddesses was a series of theatrically staged colour photographs depicting mythological figures such as Europa and Medusa.

Nearly 100 years later Goddesses is still influencing modern photographers.

Yevonde, Life and Colour is showing at the National Portrait Gallery from June 22 until October 15.



Picture:  Yevonde Cumbers self portrait Picture: Mary Evans Picture Library, Fair Use

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