_ . ‘Be original 5 or die!’
1 Miranda France previews a
i retrospective exhibition of portraits l by 305 photographer Madame
I Yevonde — extrovert, socialite and
l pioneer of colour photography.
‘Show a gaudy chocolate-box picture to a child, or a savage, or the unsophisticated, and they will declare it beautiful,‘ observed D.M. Cuthbertson, in a smug but admirably derisive article on colour photography published in 1935. It was fairly typical of the reactions elicited by the advent of colour photography — generally considered a vulgar and inferior genre — and in this case the object of Cuthbertson's snobbery is most likely to have been Madame Yevonde (not French — she was born in Streatham), an early pioneer ofcolour and almost entirely forgotten about until the Royal Photography Society revived her with a touring exhibition soon to come to Kelvingrove.
An accomplished black and white photographer, Yevonde is usually remembered by admirers - and detractors — for her audacious approach to colour portraiture; London’s society ladies, accustomed to appearing as visions of Chiaroscuro loveliness, were dressed up as surreal Greek goddesses in her most famous series, and photographed in bright colours that made Disney's new Technicolor look tame by comparison. Yevonde‘s battle cry, and ultimately her epitaph, was ‘Be original or die!‘
Her own story was equally colourful: born in 1893 into a wealthy family and, the scourge ofa
succession of governesses who endeavoured to educate her at home, she was finally sent to a
, progressive day school where she decided to
i become not a debutante, but a Suffragette. Ultimately she recognised herselfas too hedonistic to make a full-time job out of female emancipation. and other possible careers were similarly considered and dismissed. Photography caught her eye. according to exhibition organiser. Pam Roberts, because it represented ‘a happy medium between Science and Art, combining the serious blue-stocking appeal of the one with the raffish romanticism of the other‘.
Other women had made a success out of photography, and, as an apprentice to foremost female photographer Lallie Charles, Yevonde learned the delicate art of retouching and
l flattering London‘s society ladies — something she would bring to her own portraits, when she set up a 1 studio in 1914. Her use ofstrong lighting and dark
1 background, and of sepia-toned platinotype paper '1 became a trade mark and, after a brief, distracting 1 stint as a land-girl during the war, Yevonde‘s
LISTINGS: GLASGOW 62 EDINBURGH 63
career took off: she photographed Shaw, Gielgud and Vivien Leigh: her pictures appeared in Tailer and other society magazines. Her marriage, in 1920 to playwright Edgar Middleton. was perhaps less successful - his autobiography makes no reference to her but. perversely. includes chapter headings like Women Aren‘t Wonderfuland Why] Hare Women).
At the beginning of the 30s Yevonde started experimenting with Vivex — a colour technique invented by Dr D.A. Spencer in 1928 — claiming that women, who made better portraitists in any case. had an ‘inherent‘ understanding ofcolour. ‘We know that there have been great women
Yevonde’s battle-cry, and ultimately her epitaph, was ‘Be original ordie!’
photographers.‘ she said, ‘there will be still greater as women‘s mentality expands and improves with greater freedom and opportunity.‘ She was commissioned to cover the refurbishing of the Clyde-built Queen Mary , but it was the series. Goddesses ( 1935) which was to confirm her fame as a pioneer: here. social acolytes— including Lady Diana Mosley and Lady Alexandra Haig— appeared in the garb of Minerva, Persephone. Circe and. perhaps most famously. Medusa (Mrs Edward Mayer). On this occasion. Yevonde cropped the picture quite dramatically, leaving a close-up ofchalky face. purple lips and (rubber) snake. She described Mrs Mayer as ‘a beautiful woman with eyes of the strangest and most intense blue. I realised that warm tones must be avoided if
i I I Mrs Edward Mayer as Medusa, Madame Yevonde’s ‘Goddesses’ series, 1935
I were to get an effective picture: Medusa was a cold voluptuary and sadist.‘ The series was doubtless inspired by the mystical/mythological work of the 19th century photographer and Julia Margaret Cameron. Other pictures make direct references to Surrealist works of the time. especially those of Man Ray and Dali.
Certainly the pictures feel dated now. and Yevonde‘s exclusive use of society ladies for her portraits seems snobbish (then again. the Pankhursts would not have been such willing, or wealthy sitters). But the extravagance and audacity of the pictures makes them fascinating period pieces from a social point ofview. while the fact that they were executed in a medium which soon became outdated and forgotten gives them a scientific importance. Certainly they have not lost their ability to startle. For Pam Roberts, what the portraits ‘lack in artistic statement is compensated for by their Chutzpah. humour, compositional elements, and [Yevonde‘s] overwhelming deftness when dealing with colour balance.‘
With the demise of Vivex. and the revived interest in ‘character‘ portraits, Yevonde returned to black and white, going on to photograph Koestler, Cecil Beaton and Evelyn Waugh. amongst others. In 1971 she gave some of her works to the Royal Photography Society and the National Portrait Gallery, and she was writing her autobiography, Ten Thousand Sitters, when she died in 1975.
Madame Yevonde '5 works are on show at the A rt Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove, until 12 Jan.
1 I 0N FOLLOWING PAGES: ASHLEY coox e FRED CRAYK
60 The List8-2] November 1991 .