National Gallery to reopen with exhibition on pioneering colour photographer

The National Portrait Gallery is set to reopen with more than two dozen newly discovered works from trailblazing 20th century British photographer Yevonde.

Yevonde: Life And Colour will explore the life and career of Yevonde Middleton, who pioneered the use of colour photography in the 1930s, and will run from June 22 to October 15.

The exhibition will feature more than 25 photographs on display for the first time, highlighting the history of British portrait photography over Yevonde’s 60-year career photographing famous faces, from George Bernard Shaw to Vivien Leigh, John Gielgud to Princess Alexandra.

John Gielgud
John Gielgud as Richard II in Richard Of Bordeaux by Yevonde in 1933 (National Portrait Gallery/PA)

Supported by the Chanel Culture Fund, the exhibition is the first to open as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s 2023 programme after three years of major refurbishments.

The photographs were discovered through the research, cataloguing and digitisation of Yevonde’s colour negative archive, acquired by the gallery in 2021.

A colour portrait of one of the most photographed women in the 1930s, socialite Margaret Sweeny (1938), is among the works to be shown for the first time. She gained notoriety in 1963 as the Duchess of Argyll, through her high-profile divorce which was dramatised in the BBC series A Very British Scandal starring Claire Foy as Margaret.

The exhibition will also feature a new colour print of the portrait of Surrealist patron and poet Edward James, which was used on his 1938 volume of poetry The Bones Of My Hand.

It will also explore Yevonde’s life and career through self-portraiture and autobiography, including an unseen self-portrait in Vivex tricolour from 1937.

Yevonde: Life and Colour
Margaret Sweeny (later Duchess of Argyll) by Yevonde (National Portrait Gallery/PA)

Director of the National Portrait Gallery Nicholas Cullinan said: “I am delighted to launch the new National Portrait Gallery with Yevonde’s extraordinary photography and to be able to share exciting new research and acquisitions we have made of her pioneering and inimitable work.

“Thanks to the Chanel Culture Fund whose support of the exhibition and digitisation of the artist’s important archive, which has enabled us to bring Yevonde’s inventive and humorous creations into focus for a new generation.”

London-based photographer Yevonde was introduced to photography as a career through her involvement with the suffragette cause, when colour photography was not considered a serious medium.

Her work quickly became published in leading society and fashion magazines such as Tatler and the Sketch, capturing the growing independence of women. Her commercial work also appeared as adverts through humorous still life or by using models in tableaux.

Yevonde’s most renowned body of work is a series of women dressed as goddesses posed in surreal tableaux made in 1935, first exhibited as part of Goddess & Others at her Berkeley Square studio in London.

National Portrait Gallery
Vivien Leigh by Yevonde in 1936 (National Portrait Gallery/PA)

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition will consider aesthetic and mythic references and uncover the biographies of her sitters. A work revealed during the final stages of producing the exhibition publication is the portrait of Dorothy Gisborne (Pratt) as Psyche in 1935.

Yevonde’s portrayal of the Greek goddess of the soul with customary butterfly wings is a previously unknown element of the Goddess series.

The exhibition will build on Reframing Narratives: Women In Portraiture, a three-year project to improve representation of women in the gallery’s collection.

Clare Freestone, photographs curator at the National Portrait Gallery, said: “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.”