“Photographic pioneer Madame Yevonde portrayed Dorothy Campbell – the wife of speed champion Malcolm Campbell, an unfaithful husband – enacting a Greek myth centred around Niobe and her grief.
This colour print, made using the early-20th-century Vivex process, epitomises Yevonde’s mastery of expression at the height of her career.
The National Portrait Gallery acquired Yevonde’s archive in 2021, and with 500 images conserved, researched and digitised with the support of the Chanel Culture Fund, we have re-presented her oeuvre for a new audience.
Our exhibition Yevonde: Life and Colour – which ended on 15 October but continues at the Laing Art Gallery from 11 November until 20 April 2024 – is part of the gallery’s commitment to enhance our representation of women.
Yevonde made and exhibited this photograph in 1935 to launch her studio in the heart of London’s Mayfair. Her exhibition, Goddesses and Others, was a celebration of the Vivex colour process, as she ‘had to fight continually for the recognition of the colour photograph as a satisfactory medium for portraiture’.
Goddesses and Others made a persuasive argument for the brilliance of colour photography, with her female sitters made-up, dressed up and posed.
This image demonstrates Yevonde’s confident pictorial vision. It is unusually close-up and heavily cropped, as if on the big screen of the thriving cinema industry, forecasting the technicolor vision that was soon to reach Britain’s shores.
While she declared that colour photography had ‘no history, no tradition, no old masters, but only a future’, Yevonde’s work did reference the art of her contemporaries.
The aesthetics of the surrealist artists are evident, and, to me, this image is reminiscent of Man Ray’s 1932 work Larmes – ‘tears’ in English – which shows a woman crying glass droplets.
A more recent photographic series also springs to mind – contemporary artist Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, 1977-80, which shows constructed personas of women akin to Yevonde’s renderings of powerful female mythologies.
Today’s appetite for retellings of Greek myths further demonstrates the enduring nature of this imagery.
Campbell as Niobe is one of 37 Vivex prints in the portrait gallery’s collection. These have been joined by 2,000 tri-colour separation plates which, when printed with three-colour pigments or digitised, make vibrant colour portraits, still life and commercial compositions.
On closer inspection of this print, we can see evidence of retouching on the negatives – exposed for printing with yellow, red and blue.
Vivex was the first colour lab process available to professional photographers in Britain and Yevonde’s hand manipulation roots the image in the early days of this exciting colourful world.
Yevonde celebrated women’s use of colour in the burgeoning cosmetics and fashion industries as fads for the photographer to exploit. In fact, studio make-up had to be exaggerated under the harsh lighting.
In creating Niobe’s tears in this image, glycerine mixed with Lady Dorothy’s mascara caused her such ‘exquisite pain that Dolly wept real tears’, said Yevonde.
‘When at last she was able to look up, her eyes were bloodshot and her expression so miserable that I rushed the focus and was able to take a face expressive of the utmost sorrow and pain.’ Although she knew Dorothy personally, Yevonde evidently had an ability to put sitters at ease and engage some in role play.
Yevonde’s vision from almost a century ago is remarkably fresh. Research by our digitisation team and by artist Katayoun Dowlatshahi, who made 25 colour carbon prints for the exhibition, has resulted in a truthful spectacle of Yevonde’s intended colours, which also shines a light on the stories of her many female sitters.”