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  • Writer's pictureMegan Stevenson

Yevonde: Made by Women

A report on the National Portrait Gallery’s recent study day ‘Yevonde – an exploration’

Clare Freestone speaking in front of an image of the exhibition’s display of the Goddess series. Photo by author.

On the last Friday of September, I was one of many to gather in the National Portrait Gallery’s Ondaatje Wing Theatre for a study day held in tandem with their current exhibition Yevonde: Life and Colour.

The study day title ‘Yevonde – an exploration’ hinted at the eclectic and broad set of talks, each an exercise in a different way to approach Yevonde’s photography. A theme emerged as the day went on, emphasising the importance of the context Yevonde was situated within, who came before her and how her photographic world was shaped. In all these spaces, women were central to Yevonde’s experience.

Lucinda Gosling’s talk A Woman’s World? Yevonde, women’s magazines and the dawn of equality provided a sense of the media Yevonde would have seen in her adolescence. Magazines such as The Girl’s Own gave young women greater ambition to become something beyond a housewife, and women’s suffrage became an important cause in Yevonde’s life. Indeed, seeing portraits of suffragettes taken by Lena Connell seemed to in some way validate photography as a profession for Yevonde, as it was after this sighting that she actively pursued the career.

George Mind’s talk Making Madame Yevonde: photographic foremothers and the factory of femininity described the photographic studios of Lena Connell and Lallie Charles as a kind of ‘matrilineage’ for Yevonde’s own work. The success of these women provided footholds for Yevonde’s career. As Gosling put it, Yevonde ‘travelled in the slipstream’ of their success. Not only that, but we can see Yevonde’s training under Lallie Charles through a sort of family resemblance; like Charles, Yevonde drew on art historical tropes to create theatrical images, marking her difference through bold colours rather than Charles’ soft finish.

Lallie Charles, Miss Ethel Barrymore, 1900-1910, National Portrait Gallery

Yevonde’s strong use of colour was at the heart of Kirsty Sinclair Dootson’s Modern Women, Modern Colour: Yevonde and the Feminisation of Interwar Colour Media. This talk covered not only the colour in Yevonde’s final prints, but how the processes behind printing linked to a view of colour photography as ‘feminine’. In a manner akin to doing laundry, the women working in photo labs washed prints, pressed them through mangles, and hung them to dry. Simplifying the photographer’s work by having the printing process ‘automated’ in a lab was seen to ‘feminise’ the work of the photographer by simplifying it. When the entire photographic process was carried out by an individual, it had a masculine association, but when the stages were separated and shared, it became feminine. The notion of an individual great artist mastering his craft was being disrupted.

Sinclair Dootson showed how the norms of the 1930s (in fashion, makeup, and Technicolour cinema) required colour to be harmonious. Colours could be bright, but they had to flatter one another, and in cinema they were used to convey narrative points. Yevonde’s use of colour worked counter to this, she threw multiple bright, clashing colours into one image. She retained the raw edges of colour that came from the Vivex colour process (see the yellow lines along the edge of Vivien Leigh’s top). This context gives a new perspective to Yevonde’s famous line: “If we are going to have colour photographs, for heaven's sake let's have a riot of colour.” To pose people in bold colours, vibrant and clashing, was a riot against the expectations of how women should use colour to dress, paint, and express themselves.

Yevonde, Vivien Leigh, 1936, Victoria and Albert Museum

Cally Blackman’s talk Fashion, Colour, Art outlined the growing reputation of London in 1930s fashion, and found examples of ‘The London Look’ in Yevonde’s work. Discussing fashion history gave the audience a new lens through which to view Yevonde’s work, not just in broad strokes but also in the detail of specific images. For example, we learned about Phyllis Panting, who modelled for Yevonde, was the editor of Women and Beauty, and the wife of fashion designer Digby Morton.

Yevonde, Phyllis Panting likely wearing clothes designed by her husband Digby Morton, 1937, National Portrait Gallery

The stories of individuals can shine a whole new light on who Yevonde was, and how she worked. This was the focus of Lizzie Broadbent’s talk Goddesses and Mortals: the role of Yevonde’s network. Yevonde was close with other business women, and an active member of the Women’s Provisional Club (a London-based club for business women). A number of women in this group became her models over the years. Broadbent countered the idea that Yevonde’s goddess models were all society women, pointing out that Madeleine Mayer, who posed as Medusa for Yevonde, was in fact her next-door neighbour. We can see that Yevonde’s photos were shaped by the people in her world, and this was likely the secret to her sustained success over five decades; she had a personality that won people over and a community of supporters.

Yevonde, Madeleine Mayer as Medusa, 1935, National Portrait Gallery

The final talk of the day was artist Neeta Madahar’s Yevonde’s Influence, in which Madahar outlined how her own work has been influenced by Yevonde. Flora, a series of staged, theatrical, often surreal portraits of friends with plants, has clear inspiration in Yevonde’s Goddess series. Hearing about Madahar’s own practice made me realise the level of long-term planning that Yevonde would have needed to design each shot in her Goddess series. The instant a photograph captures would have taken weeks or even months to prepare. It was refreshing to have the curtain pulled back and hear about the planning process, rather than only the final product.

Reflecting on this day of talks, it seems that we learned about Yevonde by learning about the people around her. The most information directly about Yevonde came from Clare Freestone’s introduction to the morning and afternoon sessions, where sections of her biography In Camera were quoted and moments in her life outlined. The talks sought to understand Yevonde through women around her: Lena Connell and Lallie Charles, the women who developed her photographs, the networks that supported her business ambitions, the neighbours, friends and clients who brought her photos to life. They also offered insight into how Yevonde’s work fits her context: which fashions we can learn about, who she photographer, and how her use of colour stands against the prevailing colour theory of the time.

The day truly was an exploration of Yevonde’s work, and I appreciated the fact it presented Yevonde as a part of a wider story, offering many different avenues of exploration for those interested in Yevonde’s striking photography, and proving that women were at the heart of her success.

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