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Exhibition: pioneering Yevonde colour photographs to go on show for the first time

The first major exhibition as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s reopening on 22 June will showcase the ground-breaking work of 20th century British photographer, Yevonde. Supported by the CHANEL Culture Fund, the exhibition will include new prints and discoveries, revealed by the latest research on Yevonde’s colour negative archive, acquired by the Gallery in 2021.

Over 25 newly discovered photographs by Yevonde, a pioneer of colour photography in the 1930s, will go on show for the first time when the National Portrait Gallery reopens to visitors, in the largest exhibition of the artist’s work. With over 150 works displayed, Yevonde: Life and Colour (22 June – 15 October 2023), supported by the CHANEL Culture Fund, will survey the portraits, commercial commissioned work and still lives that the artist produced throughout her sixty year career. Showcasing photographs of some of the most famous faces of the time – from George Bernard Shaw to Vivien Leigh, and John Gielgud to Princess Alexandra – the exhibition positions Yevonde as a trailblazer in the history of British portrait photography.

Reflecting the growing independence of women after the First World War, this exhibition will focus on the freedom photography afforded Yevonde, who became an innovator in new techniques, experimenting with solarisation and the Vivex colour process. The exhibition is the first to open as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s 2023 programme, following the largest redevelopment in its history.

Yevonde Middleton, known as Madame Yevonde or simply Yevonde (1893-1975), was a successful London-based photographer whose work focused on portraits and still life throughout much of the twentieth century. She was introduced to photography as a career through her involvement with the suffragette cause. As an innovator committed to colour photography when it was not considered a serious medium, Yevonde’s oeuvre is significant in the history of British photography.

In 2021, Yevonde’s tri-colour separation negative archive was acquired by the Gallery through funding from The Portrait Fund. Following extensive research, cataloguing and digitisation, funded by CHANEL Culture Fund, stunning new discoveries have been uncovered. Revealed for the first time in this new exhibition, they showcase the range of sitters and subjects that Yevonde photographed in colour – from glamorous debutantes and the royal family to leading writers, artists and film stars.

The vibrant colour portrait of one of the most photographed women in the 1930s, socialite Margaret Sweeny (1938), will be shown for the first time. Later, in 1963, as Duchess of Argyll, Margaret gained notoriety through a high-profile divorce. The scandal was recently dramatised in the 2021 award-winning BBC series A Very British Scandal, with Margaret portrayed by Claire Foy. The exhibition will also feature a new colour print of the portrait of Surrealist patron and poet, Edward James, 1933, used on the cover of his 1938 volume of poetry The Bones of My Hand. Yevonde’s still life often integrated elements of Surrealist iconography and she referenced the work of Man Ray in her own portraits.

The exhibition will explore Yevonde’s life and career through self-portraiture and autobiography, contextualising her work within the productive days of creative modernist photography. To this end, a previously unseen self-portrait in vivid Vivex tricolour from 1937 has been uncovered and will be displayed as part of the exhibition. The self-portrait sees Yevonde looking directly into the lens and at the viewer, positioned alongside her weighty one-shot camera and using Art Now – Herbert Read’s survey of modern art from 1933 – as a prop, clearly depicting herself as an artist with a camera.

Establishing her studio before the outbreak of the First World War, Yevonde’s work quickly became published in leading society and fashion magazines such as the Tatler and the Sketch, depicting new freedoms in fashion and leisure as well as capturing the growing independence of women. Her commercial work also appeared as advertisements constructed through humorous still life or by using models in tableaux. Yevonde’s audience included the readers of the growing field of women’s magazines including Woman and Beauty and Eve’s Journal.

An exciting new discovery revealed during the final stages of producing the exhibition publication, is the portrait of Dorothy Gisborne (Pratt) as Psyche (1935). Yevonde’s portrayal of the Greek goddess of the soul, with customary butterfly wings, is a previously unknown element of the Goddess series.

Yevonde’s originality demonstrated through these photographs traverses almost a century and provides a vision so fresh and relatable. It is enthralling that there are further revelations to be transformed into colour after almost a century or, for some, for the very first time.” Clare Freestone, Photographs Curator, National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery is pleased to offer a new £5 ticket for its Summer 2023 season of exhibitions, available to all visitors aged 30 and under. Supported by the Principal Partner of the new National Portrait Gallery – Bank of America – reduced £5 tickets for Yevonde: Life and Colour will be available to all visitors aged 30 and under, seven days a week.

Yevonde: Life and Colour will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, featuring over 160 beautifully illustrated photographic works from the pioneering photographer. The book, which includes an introductory essay by exhibition curator Clare Freestone, will explore how Yevonde’s bold creations brought a burst of colour to photography in Britain. It is available to  pre-order now.

Image: Margaret Sweeny (Whigham, later Duchess of Argyll) 1 by Yevonde (1938), purchased with support from the Portrait Fund, 2021

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Comment by Michael Pritchard on March 23, 2023 at 19:43

And not forgetting your own important work, too, Pam! 

Comment by Pamela Glasson Roberts on March 23, 2023 at 18:10

Clare Freestone has carried Yevonde research into the 21st Century and produced a very beautiful book and exhibition with many previously unknown images including some glorious modern tricolour carbros printed by Katayoun Dowlatshahi.  Very excited to see the exhibition on the walls!

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