Yevonde Middleton (1893-1975)

Born: Yevonde Philone Cumbers

Sector: Media (Photography)

‘Colour photography will never do any good’, Yevonde Middleton was once advised. ‘It’s too expensive and too chancey.’ Fortunately, she took no notice and now she is celebrated for her ground-breaking colour work from the 1930s.  This was a particularly fruitful decade of innovation and experimentation in a sixty-year career as one of Britain’s leading 20th century portrait photographers.

Yevonde Middleton

Yevonde Cumbers was born in Streatham on 5th January 1893.  She and her younger sister, Verena, had a comfortable upbringing, moving to leafy Bromley in 1899, but their schooling was erratic and Yevonde’s education came via governesses, a local day school, a progressive boarding school, a Belgian convent and an international school in Paris.  By the time she left school in 1910, she had embraced the fight for women’s suffrage. She started selling the WSPU’s publications in Bromley and arranged recruitment meetings but as demonstrating escalated to window-smashing and arson Yevonde backed off, terrified at the thought of being fore-fed in prison. She later judged herself to have been ‘a rather inferior suffragette’ but was always passionate about gender equality .
She focused her energies instead on achieving financial independence and her attention was caught by an advertisement in The Suffragette for an apprentice, placed by the photographer Lena Connell, Portrait photography was big business at the turn of the century and Lena, Alice Hughes, Rita Martin and Olive Edis were just some of the women who had set up their own studios.  In the end Yevonde went to work with Lallie Charles, by then one of the most fashionable photographers of the day.  She took only one photograph in her two-year apprenticeship but learned other, equally important skills, including printing, mounting and retouching.  Smoothing out wrinkles and shaving off bulges to make their clients look younger and slimmer was common practice and Yevonde later had no qualms about ensuring that her photographs had pride of place on the mantlepiece even if the representation was not exact. 
Yevonde also had the less pleasant experience of watching her boss head towards bankruptcy.  Charles failed to modernise her portraiture style and took on too much debt when she moved to a new studio. Yevonde was alert to these business risks throughout her own career, experimenting with different styles, diversifying her portfolio and carefully considering every studio move, taking larger and smaller premises as her career waxed and waned.

In 1914, she turned 21 and persuaded her father to back her in setting up her own business as her birthday present. Family members were early sitters and she took photographs of well-known actresses for free. Within a few months her work was appearing in the Pall Mall Gazette and The Tatler, though one magazine credited her as ‘Tevonde’. The outbreak of war was good for business. Society figures swapped their tiaras for nursing caps and The Sketch, The Tatler and The Bystander were all keen to show aristocratic women doing their bit. Soldiers and sailors queued up to be immortalised in their uniforms while women wanted their husbands, brothers and lovers to remember them looking their best. Those that could it afford it came to Yevonde’s studio for a formal sitting. Some women brought evening dresses carefully folded into a small case; a few even had a maid on hand to tie them into the appropriate undergarments but sometimes it was Yevonde and her assistant tugging at the laces. Apart from a few months when she was a rather unhappy Land Girl Yevonde spent for most of the war working in the studio.  
Love and marriage
The war brought with it some romance but nothing long-term.  Then in late 1919 Yevonde met Edgar Middleton, a tall, dark, serious-looking journalist and budding playwright.  They were soon, their wedding date of Friday 13th February perhaps portentous. Through both his own writing and Yevonde’s descriptions, Edgar comes across a selfish workaholic, generally dissatisfied with his lot.  He told her on their honeymoon that he was not interested in having children, which came as a shock to her. He insisted they live in a tiny flat in Inner Temple, where only a curtain separated the bathroom from the kitchen and one sink served all purposes. When he came home from work at the end of the day he turned his attention to his play writing not his wife.  His provocative columns with titles like ‘Marriage Can Bring Ruin to a Man’s Career’ and ‘Woman’s Emancipation All a Bluff’ provoked hundreds of letters to his paper and telephone calls to their flat from outraged women and sit uneasily alongside Yevonde’s feminism. Yevonde valued the support and encouragement he gave her in her career and was always loyal, saying they shared ‘love and fun and good times’ but even in her writing he comes across as a very difficult man to live with and love. 
The Roaring Twenties
Yevonde was determined to make a go of her career but was working in a crowded market, competing with established houses like Bassano, Speaight, Lafayette and Elliott & Fry, and other newcomers such as Bertram Park, Yvonne Gregory, Marcus Adams and Dorothy Wilding.  Her recipe for success combined technical skill with excellent relationship skills and savvy brand building.  

In April 1921, she spoke at the annual Congress of the Professional Photographers Association, on ‘A Woman’s Place in Photography’, the first woman to address them in their 93-year history and was happy to write articles for newspapers.

In 1922 she won her first high profile commission, taking the engagement photograph of Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley and the sitting marked the start of a long professional relationship with the Mountbattens: photographing Edwina (several times), her sister and her daughters, including their wedding photographs.

These trusted relationships, where women whom Yevonde had photographed as debutantes then came back for engagement photographs, wedding photographs and sittings with their children, who then grew up and in turn made their way to the studio, were one of the keys to Yevonde’s career longevity.

Yevonde was also a very good networker, taking and making opportunities to build a wide range of relationships that she converted into sittings.  Together with Edgar she attended the founding dinner for PEN International in 1921 bringing her into contact with many writers she would later photograph, including Rebecca West.  Edgar’s work on plays and films gave Yevonde intros to a range of stars who then turned up in her studio. 

Rebecca West
Rebecca West by Yevonde c. 1950s: released under a Creative Commons licence

As the new decade dawned, a group of scientists and technicians was hard at work in Willesden on an innovation that would change Yevonde’s career. Magazines and businesses wanted colour images that could be replicated in high volumes, cost-effectively and the Colour Photography Company had a solution: they patented a specific tricolour carbro process, where colour prints were made from three separate glass plate negatives and called it Vivex.   
Yevonde immediately saw the potential of colour to shake up portrait photography but the early days were not easy.  Colour images were more expensive to make and so had to seem worth it.  She struggled to create a recognisably ‘human’ skin tone and careful co-ordination was needed of background, make up, clothing and props. Only small adjustments could be made during the development process, so even choosing the wrong shade of lipstick could be a costly mistake. 
Yevonde was undeterred.  Wielding a specially-designed camera that exposed all three colour plates at once, a hefty piece of equipment weighing approximately six kilos, she persevered.  She made many demands of the Willesden team that ‘cut completely across’ their standard processes but they were all invested in pushing the boundaries of this new technology. In June 1932, she presented an attention-grabbing exhibition of both colour and black and white work and the following year she decided to relocate her studio from Victoria to Mayfair’s Berkeley Square.

In 1935, inspired by a fund-raising ball with an Olympian theme,  Yevonde started work on the series for which she is probably best known, the Goddesses.  Over the next year she photographed 23 women she knew from previous sittings or through her own social network as mythical and historical characters. It was a significant creative and logistical undertaking: goddesses and historical figures had to be chosen and a concept for each photograph conceived. 
Once she had persuaded women to participate, appropriate costumes, accessories and stage props had to be found and made ready for when the ‘model’ arrived.  Yevonde’s assistants scurried around London finding fake pearls, plastic snakes, stuffed owls and a large bull’s head.  Swathes of material were sourced. Props which Yevonde had used in previous images were re-purposed and by now May Ray’s surrealism was influencing her compositions. 

Some of the images now look stagey or dated but many are timeless and still powerful: Madeleine Mayer as Medusa, tightly cropped, snakes encircling her face, pale-faced, a green filter turning her intense blue eyes brown and her lips a deep burgundy lips; Aileen Balcon as a modern-day Minerva, with a gun replacing her spear; and Sheila Chisholm as Penthesila, Queen of the Amazons, head thrown back as an arrow pierces her fur-draped throat.

Sheila Milbanke as Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons by Yevonde, 1935 (c) National Portrait Gallery

Her first all-colour studio exhibition in July 1935 included images from this series and while the show not receive a huge amount of coverage, the critics who saw it considered her work ground-breaking, recognising both the creativity and the technical mastery.  ‘Apart from ingenuity of conception [these photos] are among the best direct colour photographs we have seen’, reported The Times.
Buoyed by the response and further boosted by a front-page-grabbing royal commission when Lady Alice Scott married the Duke of Gloucester in November 1935, Yevonde put together a portfolio and in February 1936 set sail for New York.  Fortune magazine commissioned her to photograph the final stages of the fitting out of the RMS Queen Mary and ran a 12-page spread seen by Beaumont Newhall, who was curating the first exhibition dedicated to photography at the Museum of Modern Art.  When this seminal show opened in March 1937, Yevonde was one of only two women with work in the colour section.  

Annus horribilis
The lead up to the Coronation of George VI in May 1937 meant an even busier studio while Yevonde continued to expand her advertising and fashion portfolio.  She rounded off 1938 with a light-hearted still-life of a candle-bedecked reindeer’s head on the cover of Eve’s Journal.  As the New Year bells chimed, Yevonde must have been excited about the future but her personal and professional worlds were soon in turmoil. Shortly afterwards, Edgar was diagnosed with cancer and by April he was dead.  Devastated, Yevonde scattered his ashes under a magnolia tree in the Temple gardens and moved out of the flat that had been her home for the last twenty years.  Four months later war was declared and the dyes of the Colour Photography Company were requisitioned. It brought both the Vivex process and a fulfilling, mutually respectful professional partnership to a sudden end.  A self-portrait from 1940 is packed with symbolism: Yevonde sits within an ornate frame, holding up an old photographic plate, surrounded by the plates and chemicals she could no longer use, watched over by one of her 1935 creations, Hecate, goddess of the underworld.  She never worked in colour again.

Post-war recovery
Post-war recovery
Yevonde worked throughout the war, moving out to the countryside when her flat was bombed and commuting in to Berkeley Square. Her studio and archive survived the war broadly intact but business was slow to recover and in 1947, a manager at Ilford, one of her suppliers, set up a meeting between her and Maurice Broomfield, a painter and budding photographer and film-maker.   They formed a business partnership based at Yevonde’s Berkeley Square studio, which he later described as a ‘wonderful experience working with a wonderful person’.  After a couple of years, portrait work was picking up again and Yevonde and Broomfield went their separate ways. The Women’s Provisional Club remained a point of continuity and Yevonde joined with Gertrude Leverkus and Ethel Wood to celebrate their 25th anniversary celebrations with gusto.

Women’s Provisional Club Silver Jubilee Celebrations: Yevonde plays Rumour with Ethel Wood, Gertrude Leverkus and Dora Greene among the other cast members.

1958 brought significant changes in the portrait photography landscape.  It was announced that this would be the last year in which there would be a Court presentation for debutantes, removing the centrepiece of the social season and with it a cornerstone of the society portraitist’s business. The old guard of photographers started making way for the new: Dorothy Wilding sold her business to her 24-year old assistant Tom Hustler and he and Antony Armstrong-Jones brought a far more informal approach to society photography.  Yevonde again turned to Man Ray for inspiration as she started experimenting with solarisation, a technique he and Lee Miller had originated in the 1930s. Producing distinctive images, mid-way between a positive and negative print, it was creatively fulfilling but not commercially successful, her sitters preferring more traditional portraits.

Feminism in action
Throughout her career, Yevonde actively worked to increase the number of women working in photography.  She usually specified in her job advertisements that she was looking for a female assistant and had an early mentoring win when her first assistant, Muriel Oliver, moved up to Manchester and opened a studio there under her boss’s name. Yevonde repeatedly enumerated the benefits of a career in photography: you could start training straight after school, set up a business with relatively little capital investment and carry on working when you got married.  Her opinions were clearly biased by her own experience: ‘To fritter away the years between seventeen and twenty-two in having a good time and then hope to settle down to learn the work is all wrong’, she commented.

At the end of July 1936, Yevonde was thrilled to join more than 300 other women ‘careerists’ in Paris at the second congress of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women. Among the other participants were another one of Yevonde’s early sitters, Lilian Bayliss, now manager of the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells theatres as well as Caroline Haslett, Gordon Holmes, Helena Normanton and Elsa Schiaperelli. 

It is therefore fitting that the last exhibition that Yevonde organised of her own work, in 1968, was entitled ‘Some Distinguished Women’, marking fifty years of some women getting the vote, celebrating the many famous and noteworthy sitters she had worked with over the years and showing off her many different portrait styles and techniques. In 1971, the Royal Photographic Society organised a retrospective in her honour and she continued taking photographs almost right up until her death on 22nd December 1975.

It is therefore fitting that the last exhibition that Yevonde organised of her own work, in 1968, was entitled ‘Some Distinguished Women’, marking fifty years of some women getting the vote, celebrating the many famous and noteworthy sitters she had worked with over the years and showing off her many different portrait styles and techniques. In 1971, the Royal Photographic Society organised a retrospective in her honour and she continued taking photographs almost right up until her death on 22nd December 1975.

What can we learn today from Yevonde’s long and successful career?  She was highly collaborative, working successfully with sitters, technicians, other photographers and commissioners. She invested in building her brand.  She diversified around her core business of portrait photography, took risks and kept experimenting with different styles and techniques in her portrait work.  In 2015 the BBC made a three-part documentary series, ‘Britain in Focus: A Photographic History’ from which the work of women was largely omitted and where no mention at all was made of the colour explosion in the 1930s, let alone Yevonde’s pioneering role in its development.  A recent application for a blue plaque was turned down because she was not famous enough.  However, her work still inspires designers and artists today and perhaps exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery will bring her new fans and the recognition she deserves. 

Yevonde: Life and Colour’ opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London on 22nd June 2023 and runs until 15th October.

A large number of Yevonde’s works works are held in the National Portrait Gallery collection.  Sisters of the Lens is a project celebrating early women photographers including Yevonde.  The V&A’s Parasol Foundation Women in Photography Project supports women photographers and includes an Yevonde photograph from the Goddesses series, held in its collection, on the project home page. 

Sources include:

The Sketch 17/6/1914; The Pall Mall Gazette 21/4/1921; The Times 21/4/1921; Westminster Gazette 02/06/1922; The Times 13/2/1923; Westminster Gazette 3/8/1927; ‘Talk of London’ in the Sheffield Independent 27/4/1932; Dundee Evening Telegraph 21/03/33; Western Mail and South Wales News 11/5/1933; The Times 11/7/35; New York Herald Tribune 1/8/1936; The Times 8/2/1965; Sunday Times 12/5/1968; The Times 3/6/1974

‘In Camera’ (1940) by Yevonde; ‘I Might Have Been a Success’ by Edgar Middleton (1935)

Royal Photographic Society Journal 1937

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