Be original or die


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At Glass we have always prided ourselves on championing the forgotten pioneers of fashion and photography but there can be none greater than Madame Yevonde. Born Yevonde Thilone Cumbers in 1893, a middle-class English girl, she would go on to become the leading light in colour and fashion photography. At a time when colour photography was in its infancy – colour film hadn’t yet been invented and so glass plates had to be used, with only a handful of people around the world knowing how to use them – Madame was already experimenting with developing techniques and was the originator of colour manipulation.

The photo developing process itself was so complex that it was necessary for the company’s technical staff to imbibe a colossal manual before being able to develop photographs, but Madame digested this easily and was soon instructing the company on how to build on their process. Initially they were horrified, presuming that she would make a mess of their finely tuned, incredibly high-tech system, but they soon saw that the results of Madame’s trials were astounding. Her colours were so incredibly rich and vibrant that they predated by several decades the quality of work by photographers who would later make a name for themselves when colour film became commercially available.

She also had an eye for positioning and attitudes, and was the first to break out from the Edwardian era’s penchant for reserved, expressionless portraits in sepia tones and usually with the subject standing very stiffly three-quarters on to the camera. Madame believed in sensuality and excitement, and her clientele responded warmly, with countless members of English aristocracy and high society, and even Hollywood stars such as Vivian Leigh, flocking to be photographed by her. The sittings did not come cheap. Madame charged twenty guineas per sitting – a small fortune at the time – and prints would cost the sitter an additional two and a half guineas. But her exclusivity only heightened her popularity.

Madame also pioneered the use of photographic techniques which are, these days, taken completely for granted, such as the concept of backlighting and the use of colour filters. Today her archive and the preservation of her work rests solely in the hands of a gentleman named Lawrence Hole, whose partner, Ann, was Madame’s assistant for the final decade of Madame’s life. He is custodian of some three thousand sets of glass plates – each set consisting of three plates; cyan, magenta and yellow – the same three colours used together with black in printing today, hence the profile CMYK. He is also the guardian of hundreds of prints and was kind enough to share with us not only the details of Madame’s extraordinary life but also the photographs, many of which have scarcely been seen since their first publication in the thirties.

How well did you know Madame?
I knew Madame for virtually the whole of the period that my partner Ann was her assistant. Ann started working for her early in 1964 and went out to Ethiopia with her later that year where Madame photographed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. It was shortly after the Ethiopian trip that I got to know Ann and, through her of course, Madame. I regularly visited the studio to pick Ann up for lunch or for supper. Occasionally I would run errands for Madame if they were tied up and something needed delivering for printing or some such thing and so I got to know her over those ten, eleven years pretty well.

What was she like as a person?
She was great fun and quite brilliant. She could be difficult to work with sometimes – the artistic temperament obviously – but by and large she was fun to be with. If she wasn’t under any sort of pressure, she could be most engaging. She was very witty and pretty well read, not very widely travelled, but knew an awful lot of people through her work and so she had her own ideas on life and society and everything else. We had some very interesting discussions sometimes.

Where did the name Madame come from, seeing that she was English?
At that time it was simply fashionable for women in business to style themselves as ‘Madame’. It was more for style and respectability than anything else.

To become such a prominent woman at that time, Madame must have come from a good background. Was she aristocracy, or from a ‘good’ family?
She was from a good, middle-class family. Her father was director of a company manufacturing printing inks in Farringdon Road in London. They were quite a wealthy middle class family. She was brought up with nannies, whom she terrorised, and then she was sent to boarding schools – some of which suited her temperament and others didn’t. She went on to finishing school in Belgium and then to the Sorbonne in France, where she stayed for a while at a sort of hostel for lady students who were studying also at the Sorbonne. She was always very independently minded indeed. She wanted to make her own way in the world, she wasn’t going to just sit at home or go to parties and fall in and out of love waiting for the right man to come along. She was quite determined that she was going to be independent and that’s exactly what she did. She had the idea that photography might be a good career for a woman to take up and saw an advertisement for Lena Connell, who was a well-known lady photographer of the time and went along for the interview. She quite liked the woman and would probably have taken the job, except that travelling from Bromley, where she was living at the time, up to St John’s Wood on a daily basis, would just be too much. So she didn’t take that job, but she knew from then onwards that photography was what she wanted to do. She then contacted Lallie Charles, who was probably the best-known woman photographer of the day, and they got along well, so she apprenticed herself there for three years. During that period she took one single photograph. She spent the rest of the time learning, spotting, developing, retouching and things like that, and obviously how to run a studio. But actual hands-on experience – very little indeed. Towards the end of that time, Lallie Charles’s star was waning and Madame didn’t want to go down with a sinking ship, so she made herself completely independent. Her father gave her £250 as a birthday present on her 21st birthday to set up her own studio in Victoria Street.

How much would that be worth in today’s money?
£250 back in 1914, I wouldn’t begin to know, but certainly many thousands. She bought the lease, I believe, for a certain time. It was a studio, a photographer’s space and the equipment with it as well, and set up entirely on her own name. ‘Madame Yevonde, Portrait Photographer’ was how she styled herself right from the very beginning and she set about developing her own style. She appreciated that Lallie Charles’s style was very dated; it was not about representing personality or anything like that, it was purely representing a particularly Edwardian style of beauty, of feminine beauty – very basic shots, no one looking at the camera. Lallie Charles was the society portrait photographer of the day, but her style didn’t suit Yevonde at all; she wanted something more characterful than this pure representation of a dated style of beauty. She set about developing her own style; she used very strong lighting, dark backgrounds, and experimented with different types of plates, particularly with different types of lighting and things like that.

She used quite a lot of props as well. She was big a one for using props, but sitters were usually positioned looking away from the camera looking slightly to one side and kept more character that way. She got her sister and friends and family to sit for her and she would experiment with them. She was just 21 years old in 1914 and it was hardly done for a young lady of that age to be in business on her own – the times were totally different. But literally within months of setting up, she was supplying images, portraits and photographs of society people in their various activities for magazines such as The Sketch and Bystander, which were the society magazines of the time – where all the social events were covered and things like that. She didn’t do things by halves at all. If she went in for something, she literally went all out. She was quite an extraordinary person.

Tell me about her contribution to the origins of colour photography.
She was the greatest pioneer of colour photography. There is only one other person that one could mention in the same breath as Madame Yevonde, and that is Paul Outerbridge, in the States. His work was very interesting too, but I think Madame surpassed him in her use of colour itself. His use of colour is a man’s use of colours, whereas Madame used colour only as a woman would use it, with much more life in it; sometimes sensually, sometimes atmospherically, to create mood or something like that. She appreciated colour in all its aspects and she actually gave a lecture where she put forward the idea that women would make far better portrait photographers than men would in colour, because colour plays such an important part in their lives, in their own make-up, in fashioning, in their dress, in furnishing their homes, all that sort of thing, that they have a much more innate sense of colour than men have. She also had a very close working relationship with the people at the processing plant where the pigment-based colour prints were made. It was an incredibly complex process. She went through that, learnt it all, mastered it and then improved on it by constant experimentation. She worked very closely with the plant because her way of working was very particular. A lot of the stuff that she sent through to them rather hit them between the eyes, because it was not what they were expecting. When she’d been manipulating colour, they got rather different things coming up to what they had intended, but that was exactly the effect she wanted. She undoubtedly improved the process enormously. And that was from her own imagination.

Where did she get her ideas from?
A great deal of her ideas came out of her own head. She had a very fertile imagination indeed. The Goddesses series for example – that was not entirely out of her head; she got the idea for that from a society charity ball held at Claridge’s in March 1935 with an Olympian theme where everybody turned up as a God, Goddess, anything from classical mythology. This gave her the idea. She was very much into glamour. Obviously having worked for Lallie Charles with all those very glamorous women coming to the studio all the time, she really had an eye for glamour. A lot of the women who went to the ball came to her either before the event or after in their gorgeous bespoke gowns to be photographed and have a record of the ball. That gave her the idea to produce her whole set of images of society ladies in classical costumes, representing attributes which she thought women of her own generation could relate to. So you have the classic on one side, and what Madame Yevonde made on the other side. But most of the actual staging came absolutely out of her own head. There was only one image, to my knowledge, which shows the sitter exactly as she went to the ball, and that was the lady with the cornucopia dress. She was the chairwoman of the managing committee of the ball and, possibly for that reason, Madame didn’t suggest making any changes to her costume. Most of the others she changed to a lesser or greater degree, according to the narrative that she wanted to project. The vast majority of the actual staging of it was purely from Madame’s imagination.

Was she seen as a radical of her time?
To an extent, I suppose she was; first of all she was very independent, which women at that time were not expected to be; but also, in her teens already, she was dedicated to the Suffragette Movement and had very strong ideas on women’s roles, both social and sexual. She was a proponent of women’s issues and rights and other related matters throughout her entire life and it obviously informed a great deal of the work that she did. She explored, for example, tattoos. Around about the 1920s I think it started, but in the 1930s rather more so, a lot of aristocratic people, particularly women, became interested in tattoos.

The aristocratic women got tattoos themselves?

On their arms?
Yes! And if you look on the website you will find three of these images there, exploring the choices open to men and women in terms of their sexuality. Usually they show two arms; in one case it’s one man and one woman which is obviously symbolic of marriage; then there’s another one with two male arms which is more representative of homosexuality; and the third one is of a woman picking the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Homosexuality was still illegal but by the 20s people were talking much more openly about sexual matters. I think Madame was very accepting of this.

I find it so surprising that aristocratic women were getting tattoos in the 20s and 30s.
Yes, in those days they took to it in quite a big way. I personally find it a gross disfigurement, particularly on women, but it was just one of the aspects of women’s and men’s bodies that she explored. She was very much into exploring dressing up or role-play as a way of exploring character and things of that sort. She did a lot of that. Apparently the night she was born the doctor was en route to a fancy dress party and had to deliver her in full costume, so perhaps that’s where her interest came from!

Was she very liberal and open minded?
I think she was fairly liberal. She was not a square. She was quite liberal and open. She was not rooted in the past; she was more ‘of her days’ than one might have thought.

Was she a feminist? Do you think there was an underlying message that she wanted to promote?
Not so much that. I think it was basically anything to do with women’s rights. I think that her interest in women’s roles and women’s rights informed a lot of her work. She was doing anything she could to help the cause, as you might say. If I had to pick on any one thing, apart from the photographic work itself, I think that would have to be the thing that one would pick on.

In your opinion, what is it about her work that is still so relevant today?
So much of her work could have been taken yesterday. She was so farseeing, in some cases almost visionary, but certainly she could see the possibility of what colour photography could produce, at a time when people were not taking it seriously. She had very forward ideas, for example, that colour photography could be used in medicine for documenting various medical conditions. Obviously, if you got somebody who’s got a dreadful rash, or a horrible injury, or something like that, in black and white you can’t really see what it is. If you’ve got colour photography, you can record all that in colour and that helps diagnoses and documentation. She had ideas like that, well ahead of her time. She was very farsighted and her own imagination was not only in staging the work; it extended to the technical aspects, to the process as well. The backlighting for example, the colour manipulation; she was unquestionably the earliest and probably the greatest exponent of colour manipulation we’ve had, right up to the present day. Now we have digital but right up to that point she was streets ahead of anyone else.

Did she have any interest in a love life given her independent spirit and her focus on her art?
Yes, and her love life was very simple really. She married a man, interestingly a misogynist, whom she utterly adored. He died in 1939 and Madame was devastated by the loss. Shortly after that the company which processed all her colour photos went out of business due to the war. All materials and chemicals had to be channelled into the war effort, and photography was, of course, seen as an unnecessary indulgence. The factory never reopened and as a result Madame took very few colour photographs after that because she refused to work with processes she considered inferior. It would be many years before the technology of colour would again reach the levels that Madame had brought it to.

So, effectively, she lost her life’s two great loves in a very short period. She happened to take a very prophetic self-portrait a few months before her beloved colour processing plant was closed down; the photograph is loaded with symbolism. It features bottles of chemicals used for her process but out of her reach while she is left holding a black and white glass photo plate which was all that was left to her. Above her is a portrait of Hecate, a moon goddess from her goddesses series. The chemicals symbolised her beloved colour process, the loss of which perhaps she foresaw, the black and white plate represented the only medium she would have thereafter, and the full moon goddess reflected that at that time she was at the height of her power but from there on her moon would be waning too.

by Nicola Kavanagh

From the Glass archive, issue 15, Ambition

About The Author

Glass Magazine editor in chief

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