Yevonde Middleton: New NPG exhibition shines a light on the pioneering photographer

The National Portrait Gallery marks its reopening with a remarkable display of work by British photographer Yevonde

The National Portrait Gallery reopens next month after the largest redevelopment in its history with a new exhibition, Yevonde: Life and Colour. The show celebrates the ground-breaking work of the 20th century London-based photographer Yevonde Middleton (known simply as Yevonde), who pioneered colour photography in the 1930s. More than 150 works – many never seen before – have been brought together to depict how Yevonde’s bold images revolutionised portrait photography in Britain.

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Margaret Sweeny (Whigham, later Duchess of Argyll) 1 by Yevonde 1938 © National Portrait Gallery

Following a two-year closure, it seems only fitting that the National Portrait Gallery should reopen on 22 June with Yevonde: Life and Colour, an exhibition celebrating the incredible 60-year career of London-based Yevonde Middleton (1893-1975). Yevonde – who went by her first name or Madame Yevonde – was a portrait photographer who pushed the boundaries of her medium throughout most of the 20th century, in particular pioneering colour photography in the 1930s.

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Joan Maude by Yevonde 1932 © National Portrait Gallery

A passionate advocate for women’s rights, Yevonde was first introduced to photography as a career through her involvement with the suffragette movement. She established her studio in the capital prior to the First World War, becoming a leading society and fashion photographer. Her work, which captured the female fashion revolution of the 1920s and 30s (dropped waistlines, looser fits and boxier clothing), as well as the growing independence of women in general, appeared in all the glossies of the day, such as Tatler and Sketch, while her commercial work also gained traction. “Portrait photography without women would be a sorry business,” she once proclaimed in 1921.

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Lady Dorothy Warrender by Yevonde 1935 © National Portrait Gallery

Alongside capturing the great and the good of the era, Yevonde became an innovator of new techniques – experimenting with solarisation and the Vivex colour process, at a time when colour photography was not taken seriously. Indeed in an address to the Royal Photographic Society in 1932, she said, “If we are going to have colour photographs for heaven’s sake let’s have a riot of colour, none of your wishy washy hand tinted effects.”

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Mask (Rosemary Chance) by Yevonde 1938 © National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition, which is supported by the CHANEL Culture Fund and is the largest of Yevonde’s work to date, brings together over 150 of her portraits, commercial work and still lives, including 25 newly discovered photographs which were only unearthed when the NPG acquired Yevonde’s tri-colour separation negative archive in 2021.

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Vivien Leigh by Yevonde 1936 © National Portrait Gallery

Yevonde’s commitment to colour photography saw her take wonderfully vivid portraits, from the royal family and debutantes to writers, artists and film stars, including Vivien Leigh and John Gielgud, many of which feature in the exhibition. A highlight has to be a portrait of one of the most photographed women in the 1930s, socialite Margaret Sweeny (who later became Duchess of Argyll, gaining notoriety through her high-profile divorce) – seen here for the first time. So, too, a portrait of Surrealist patron and poet Edward James, taken in 1933 (Yevonde integrated Surrealist iconography in her own work, referencing Man Ray in her portraits).

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Dorothy Gisborne (Pratt) as Psyche by Yevonde, 1935 © National Portrait Gallery

Her most well-known body of work – a dreamlike series of women dressed as Greek and Roman goddesses made in 1935 and first exhibited in her Berkeley Square studio – also features. While the examples of self-portraiture on display include a previously unseen self-portrait from 1937, all of which help the viewer to contextualise her work and better understand the freedom photography afforded Yevonde to develop new techniques.

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Self-Portrait with Vivex One-Shot Camera by Yevonde 1937 © National Portrait Gallery

The Yevonde exhibition is just one of four major exhibitions lined-up by the NPG to mark its reopening. Also in the pipeline is a display of new work by David Hockney; The Time is Always Now, a major study of the Black figure; and a first look at never-before-seen portraits of the Beatles taken by Paul McCartney. Plus, of course, there’s the free-of-charge permanent collection.

Visitors will be able to admire the refreshed nine galleries on the first floor, as well as the new Learning Centre and the redevelopment of the East Wing. There’s also a new café, Audrey Green by Daisy Green, and The Portrait restaurant by Richard Corrigan, promising hungry art lovers the very best of seasonal ingredients from the British Isles alongside an imaginative wine and cocktail list.

Yevonde: Life and Colour runs from 22 June to 15 October 2023
St Martin’s Place, Soho, London, WC2H 0HE

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