The Equiano Centre


Madame Yevonde

By Declan O'Callaghan 

Madame Yevonde (Yevonde Philone Cumbers) was born into a wealthy family, daughter of Frederick Cumbers (a director of Johnstone and Cumbers) and Ethel Westerton. She was educated in Surrey, in Belgium in 1909 and in Paris in 1910. She joined the women's suffragette movement in 1910 while still in Europe. Yevonde was influenced in her career path after seeing an advertisement to become a photographers apprentice in 'The Suffragette'. In her autobiography, In Camera (1940) Yevonde stated 'I took up photography with the definite purpose of making myself independent. I wanted to earn money of my own'.

Yevonde became an apprentice to a leading West End photographer Madame Lallie Charles for three years. Afterwards, she rented a studio flat on Victoria Street and adopted her previous employers term of address (Madame). As Madame Yevonde she started to develop her own unique style and her professional reputation grew. She gained publicity by offering complimentary sittings to famous people, such as the French actress Gaby Deslys. World War One briefly interrupted her career, when she worked as a land girl. In 1921 she started exhibiting her work, at the Royal Photographic Society Annual Exhibition and joined the Professional Photographers' Association and the Royal Photographic Society. Later that year, she became the first ever woman to address the Professional Photographers' Association, lecturing on 'Photographic Portraiture from the Woman's Point of View'.

'I have tried to show that personality, tact, patience and intuition are all very valuable to the portrait photographer; that women possess them to a far greater degree than men' (Yevonde, cited in Gibson and Roberts, 1990).

The 1920s saw Madame Yevonde's career flourish. In 1925, she was invited to submit work to the Professional Photographers' Association International Exhibition of Professional Photography, held to celebrate a century of photography at the Princes Gallery, Piccadilly. It was in the 1930's that Yevonde produced her most memorable work, using the new Vivex colour process. She mounted a solo exhibition of her work in 1932 at the Albany Gallery in Sackville Street, the first in England to include colour portrait photographs. During the 1930s, she also photographed Paul Robeson and Rajmata Krishna Kumari of Marwar and Jodhpur. In 1940 she was elected as a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society for her work in colour photography. In 1939, she had to stop her colour work, due to the demise of the Vivex colour process. However, she continued to experiment with black and white photography and exhibit her work. To celebrate her 80th birthday and 60th year in photography, the Royal Photographic Society gave her an exhibition to display her life's work. Throughout her career Madame Yevonde lived up to her maxim 'be original or die!'

Sources and references

Archival Sources:


England and Wales, Death Index, 1916-2007 about Yevonde Philone Middleton, via ancestry.com

London, England, Electoral Registers, 1832-1965 about Yevonde Philone Middleton, via ancestry.com

The British Library:

Yevonde, M. (1940) In Camera, London: Women's Book Club.

Yevonde, M. (1998) Madame Yevonde: be original or die, London: British Council.

Secondary Sources:

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, J. Hacking (n/d) [online] Available at: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/58929 [Accessed on 28 October 2013].

Gibson, R. (1990) Madame Yevonde: colour, fantasy and myth, London: National Portrait Gallery.

Smith, L. (2002) 'There is a Garden in Her Face': Madame Yevonde's Photographic Colour', Women: A Cultural Review, 13, 2, 121-139.

Doonan, Simon (2009) 'Madame Yevonde's "Lady Balcon as Minerva". Aperture, 194, 88.