Yevonde: Life and Colour at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition review

29 October 2023, by Babette Radclyffe-Thomas

In this week’s blog, Costume Society News Editor Babette Radclyffe-Thomas, reviews the National Portrait Gallery’s reopening exhibition, Yevonde: Life and Colour.

Opening on the 22nd June 2023, Yevonde: Life and Colour marks the first major exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery’s (NPG) newly refurbished galleries and showcases new prints and discoveries that have never been put on show before.

A groundbreaking 20th century British photographer and a trailblazer in the field of colour photography in the 1930s, Yevonde’s sixty-year career is charted throughout the exhibition. Over 150 works, including portraits, commercial commissioned work and still lives are on show. The NPG purchased Yevonde’s tri-colour separation negative archive in 2021 through funding from The Portrait Fund and the extensive research and cataloguing process post-acquisition unveiled over 25 newly discovered portraits which are now on show in this exhibition. For the first time ever, a colour portrait of socialite Margaret Sweeny (1938) is on show as well as a new colour print of Surrealist patron and poet Edward James (1933).

“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 at the National Portrait Gallery said.

Yevonde pioneered and experimented with new techniques such as Vivex colour process and solarisation, as she stated in her 1932 address to the Royal Photographic Society: “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.” Her appreciation of bold colours is echoed throughout the exhibition’s design which uses bold coloured walls to draw distinctions between sections.

The exhibition opens with a previously unseen self-portrait from 1937 in vivid Vivex tricolour showing Yevonde, her one-shot camera and Art Now, Herbert Read’s survey of modern art from 1933 as a prop. The first room details her early introduction to photography through the suffragette cause, before establishing her first studio in 1914 and capturing the growing independence of women of the era. Her work in magazines such as Tatler and Sketch are shown, and her focus on women is clear, declaring in 1914 that “portrait photography without women would be a very sorry business.”

Yevonde saw the vast possibilities in colour photography stating at the time “red hair, uniforms, exquisite complexions and coloured finger-nails came into their own. Hurrah! We were in for exciting times!” Yevonde became celebrated for her colour photography which was widely disseminated at the time through print media. She photographed a wide range of faces from debutantes and the royal family to screen stars such as Vivien Leigh and playwright George Bernard Shaw.

Surrealist iconography and mythology run throughout Yevonde’s work, as shown in one of her most famous pieces of work from 1935 showing a series of women dressed as goddesses. Taking inspiration from an Olympian charity ball, Yevonde stated “on this occasion I turned to the classical for inspiration and the exhibition was called Goddesses and Others. It was an interesting subject and gave great scope.” The tableaux was created at the launch of her new Mayfair studio i and is presented on a midnight blue backdrop at the mid-point of the exhibition.

Other sections of the exhibition chart her work during the interwar years, as well as in later life including her exploration of solarisation techniques and her continued  championing of women as seen in her 1968 installation of over 50 portraits on black velvet mounts, Some Distinguished Women, celebrating a half-century of women’s emancipation.

The NPG has recently reopened after its most extensive redevelopment ever with a renewed focus on ensuring gender equality throughout its collections and programmes through The Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture, three-year project.

The exhibition is supported by the CHANEL Culture Fund and runs until 15th October 2023 in London before it travels to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle from the 5th November 2023 to 20 April 2024.

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