Looking Through the Lens of Madame Yevonde

I recently found myself sifting through self-portraits by women photographers in a not very coherent bout of research on the National Portrait Gallery website. I didn’t find exactly what I had been looking for, but I did find something much better – this photo of Madame Yevonde (fig.1).

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Fig. 1. Madame Yevonde by Madame Yevonde (1967). https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw58111/Madame-Yevonde?sort=dateDesc&LinkID=mp06547&role=art&displayStyle=thumb&displayNo=60&rNo=40

 

This photo caught my eye, and made me smile, when I had been otherwise stuck in a trance of endless scrolling. Her smart chequered suit, upright pose, and jaunty hat scream pride in herself, her work, and a humorous relationship between photography and portraiture. Editing of the image has rendered her miniature besides her huge vintage camera, an ode to her earlier portrait studio and a recognition of the many decades she had spent in the industry.

After seeing such a joyful, humorous, and enigmatic portrait, I had to look into Madame Yevonde’s work further. I want to share some of the wonderful images I have found, and generally indulge in Madame Yevonde’s personality-filled work for a while longer.

Born in 1893, Yevonde Philone Middleton was a photographer, primarily taking studio portraits, for an impressive portion of the twentieth century. Known professionally as Madame Yevonde, she opened her first photography studio in 1914 at the age of 21 and continued to work until a few months before her death in 1975.

There always seems to be something eye-catching or dramatic about Madame Yevonde’s photography. Her main mastery was in the VIVEX colour process, which allowed her to produce vibrant and lustrous colour shots. Her portrait of Vivien Leigh (fig.2) demonstrates this perfectly. The punchy red of the background emboldens Leigh, her red lip and scarf connecting her to the red reflections of the light, and her green top bringing her strongly into the foreground. Her face is lit from one side, drawing attention to the outline of her face, and contours of her nose and cheeks. It’s the sort of photo that makes you stop and look twice.

 

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Fig. 2. Vivien Leigh by Madame Yevonde (1936). https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw11846/Vivien-Leigh?LinkID=mp06547&role=art&displayStyle=thumb&displayNo=60&rNo=2

 

The next photo that jumped out to me was the portrait of the Hon. Mrs James Beck as Daphne (fig.3), a part of Madame Yevonde’s Goddesses series. Inspired by a society charity ball with an Olympian theme, Madame Yevonde made a series of portraits of society women dressed as goddesses in 1935. The abundance of leaves represent Daphne’s transformation into a Laurel tree in Greek mythology. The leaves cast a distinctive shadow across Mrs James Beck’s face, as if they are reaching across her and we are seeing Daphne mid-transformation. The shadows are tinted green in a way that the real leaf shadows would not be (they are not translucent), reminding us that this is a manufactured portrait, a piece of art.

 

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Fig. 3. The Hon. Mrs James Beck as Daphne by Madame Yevonde (1935). http://www.users.waitrose.com/~felice/image4.htm

 

The solarised portrait of Dame Dorothy Tutin (fig.4) shows another style Madame Yevonde was adept at. The solarised image brings far more texture to the portrait, particularly allowing Tutin’s ruffled hair to stand out. The darkness of her plucked eyebrows draws our attention to her serene facial expression. The contrast across the wide collar of her top gives her a regal presence. I think this portrait is one of the most characterful that Madame Yevonde produced. The solarised effect gives insight into the formality, poise, and elegance that Tutin is able to project, whilst also highlighting the relaxed side that is hinted at by her haircut.

 

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Fig. 4. Dame Dorothy Tutin by Madame Yevonde (1955). https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw144366/Dame-Dorothy-Tutin?LinkID=mp05851&role=sit&rNo=2

 

I hope to have shown you a glimpse into the wonderful world of Madame Yevonde’s photography. Through skilful manipulation of colour, props, photographic effect, and lighting, Madame Yevonde is able to create bold images that are still able to catch my eye, even in today’s image-saturated world.

By Megan Stevenson

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