Yevonde Cumbers Middleton (5 January 1893 – 22 December 1975) was an English photographer, who pioneered the use of colour in portrait photography. She used the professional name Madame Yevonde.
Life and work
Educated at the liberal and progressive Lingholt Boarding School in Hindhead and subsequently at the Guilde Internationale in Paris, as well as boarding schools in Belgium and France, from an early age Yevonde Cumbers displayed an independent attitude. Her heroine was women's liberationist Mary Wollstonecraft, and she joined the Suffragette movement in 1910. Upon leaving school, she returned to the family home in Bromley, Kent, and became active in suffragette activities, but realising that she was not cut out to be a leader in that field, she soon became bored with it. Instead she sought, and was given, a three-year apprenticeship with the portrait photographer Lallie Charles. With the technical grounding she received from working with Charles, and a gift of £250 from her father, at the age of 21 Yevonde set up her own studio at 92 Victoria Street, London, and began to make a name for herself by inviting well-known figures to sit for free. Before long her pictures were appearing in society magazines such as the Tatler and the Sketch. Her style quickly moved away from the stiff "pouter pigeon" look of Lallie Charles, toward a still formal, but more creative, style. Her subjects were often pictured looking away from the camera, and she began using props to creative effect.
By 1921 Madame Yevonde had become a well-known and respected portrait photographer, and moved to larger premises at 100 Victoria Street. Here she began taking advertising commissions and also photographed many of the leading personalities of the day, including A.A. Milne, Barbara Cartland, Diana Mitford, Louis Mountbatten and Noël Coward.
In the early 1930s, Yevonde began experimenting with colour photography, using the new Vivex colour process from Colour Photography Limited of Willesden. The introduction of colour photography was not universally popular; indeed photographers and public alike were so used to black-and-white pictures that early reaction to the new process tended toward the hostile. Yevonde, however, was hugely enthusiastic about it and spent countless hours in her studio experimenting with how to get the best results. Her dedication paid huge dividends. In 1932 she put on an exhibition of portrait work at the Albany Gallery, half monochrome and half colour, to enthusiastic reviews.
In 1933 Madame Yevonde moved once again, to 28 Berkeley Square. She began using colour in her advertising work as well as her portraits, and took on other commissions too. In 1936 she was commissioned by Fortune magazine to photograph the last stages in the fitting out of the new Cunard liner, the Queen Mary. This was very different from Yevonde's usual work, but the shoot was a success. People printed twelve plates, and pictures were exhibited in London and New York. One of the portraits was of artist Doris Zinkeisen who was commissioned together with her sister Anna to paint several murals for the Queen Mary. Another major coup was being invited to take portraits of leading peers to mark the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Yevonde's most famous work was inspired by a theme party held on 5 March 1935, where guests dressed as Roman and Greek gods and goddesses. Yevonde subsequently took studio portraits of many of the participants (and others), in appropriate costume and surrounded by appropriate objects. This series of prints showed Yevonde at her most creative, using colour, costume and props to build an otherworldly air around her subjects. She went on to produce further series based on the signs of the zodiac and the months of the year. Partly influenced by surrealist artists, particularly Man Ray, Yevonde used surprising juxtapositions of objects which displayed her sense of humour.
This highly creative period of Yevonde's career would only last a few years. At the end of 1939, Colour Photographs Ltd closed, and the Vivex process was no more. It was the second major blow to Yevonde that year—her husband, the playwright Edgar Middleton, had died in April. Yevonde returned to working in black and white, and produced many notable portraits. She continued working up until her death, just two weeks short of her 83rd birthday, but is chiefly remembered for her work of the 1930s, which did much to make colour photography respectable.
- "Madame Yevonde Be Original or Die exhibition". British Council. 1998. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
- "The Work of Madame Yevonde". Benham Gallery.
- "Doris Clare Zinkeisen". National Portrait Gallery (London). Retrieved 20 April 2010.
- DWYER, BRITTA C. "The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women - The Zinkeisen sisters - GREAT SCOTSWOMEN". Edinburgh University Press. Archived from the original on 7 August 2007. Retrieved 17 April 2010.
- Yevonde Archive—official site of the owner of the Yevonde collection. Includes biography, galleries of photographs, and exhibition history.