Words - 20th Century Greats - Madame Yevonde


20th Century Greats series (1999)

Madame Yevonde, 1893-1975

Victorian portraitists flattered to deceive. Their successors, wedded to the power of black and white images, used brilliant selling techniques to maintain the status quo. Continuing our series, John Chillingworth assures us that Madame Yevonde was of a very different breed.

No ‘rags-to-riches’ tag is needed to document the life and times of Yevonde Cumbers, born into a wealthy, middle-class Victorian family one hundred and seven years ago.

At the age of twenty-one her father, a successful company director had given her £250 (£11,872.50 in today’s money) to help start her first studio.

Yevonde had been a boisterous extrovert as a child and at eighteen, like the privileged daughters in the Edwardian age, she was sent to Paris, to complete her education at the Sorbonne.
Paris inspired her, encouraging a mood of fierce independence and a driving need to make her mark in the world. Back in London, a chance experience awakened an interest in photography

The learning curve
She took an apprenticeship with Lallie Charles, the foremost woman portrait photographer of the day. Yevonde’s father paid a thirty guineas fee (in today’s values, around £1,500) and she worked for the next three years in her mentor’s studio in Curzon Street, Mayfair.

Incredibly, Yevonde had taken only one photograph during her apprenticeship, but her confidence was such that, with her father’s birthday gift, she bought a London studio from a bankrupt photographer, along with all his equipment and launched herself as a portraitist.

She was soon using her own exuberant personality to enhance her pictures. By then, she knew that good marketing and publicity were the keys to success, so she re-invented herself as ‘Madame Yevonde’ and, offering complimentary sittings to well-known people, her reputation grew.

Like millions of patriotic women, as world war galvanised the nation, Yevonde ‘did her bit’ as a landgirl for a while, but returned to London and her photographic career.

Business boomed. Her work appeared regularly in ‘The Sketch’ and ‘Tatler’. She joined the Professional Photographers’ Association and by 1920, she was independent. In that same year, she met and rapidly married Edgar Middleton, a failed journalist, politician and playwright.

In contrast, she was a woman with the drive and dignity of a Suffragette. In 1921, she was the first woman to lecture at the annual Congress of the PPA. Soon advertising clients as well as ‘high society’ and the social media of the day were demanding her work.

The blossoming
By the 1930’s she had become bored with black and white portraiture. She began to experiment with the fabled Vivex colour process and from that day forward her career blossomed.

She took as her motto, “be original or die” and in 1932, embarked on a series of exhibitions, often based on fantasy portraits of her wealthy clients, which attracted glowing reviews. In particular her 1935 show ‘Goddesses and Others’ was a landmark in 20th century portraiture.

Her husband died in 1939 and as WWII broke out, her life changed. The Vivex company was bankrupted and much of the joy and exhilaration went out of her work. However, using her late husband’s name, Yevonde adopted a more relaxed style and continued to be a prodigious exhibitor.

At the age of seventy-one she even undertook a journey to Ethiopia to photograph the Emperor. Further exhibitions followed, but in 1971, she gave her life’s work to the National Portrait Gallery. Undoubtedly one of the 20th century’s ‘greats’, at the age of eighty, she was given a one-woman show at the RPS and continued to work.

An innovator, experimenter and visionary, she died in December 1975. You may agree that by then, the magnificent Madame Yevonde had long surpassed her ambition to ‘make her mark’ in the world!

© Copyright John Chillingworth