Circle of Sisters – Madame Yevonde and her sitters

It’s International Day of the Girl today, and so it seems a timely moment to write about Madame Yevonde, one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable photographers.  Born in 1893 to a well-to-do family, she began her apprenticeship with the photographer, Lallie Charles, and soon set up her own studio in London’s Victoria Street in 1914, at the prodigious age of 21.

Young, innovative, ambitious and thoroughly modern, Madame Yevonde recognised that the demure romanticism of Edwardian photographic portraiture had had its day and soon began to experiment with light, props and backdrops to present her sitters in an individual, original and often unconventional way.  She quickly built up her reputation and with it, a prestigious client base, often offering complimentary sittings to famous actresses and dancers as a way to establish her studio.  As her work began to appear in the smart, glossy society magazines such as The Tatler and The Bystander, her reputation as one of London’s leading portrait photographers increased, and was confirmed after she was selected to take the engagement photographs of Lord Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley in 1922.

The advent of the Vivex colour process in the 1930s, appealed greatly to Madame Yevonde’s creative and dynamic personality and she immediately adopted the process as her own, lecturing evangelically on its creative possibilities.  Her first exhibition in 1932 showed 70 pictures, half of which were in colour, while in 1935, her “Goddesses” project, a set of images of leading society ladies depicted as Greek goddesses might arguably be the zenith of Madame’s creative output.

We have represented Yevonde’s work for over a decade, with images scanned from the Yevonde Portrait Archive’s thousands of negatives and other images, many of them unavailable anywhere else, scanned from our run of society magazines in the ILN archive. We continue to discover more Yevonde images on a weekly basis, and in among the numerous society portraits, there are an intriguing number of portraits of women who were great talents themselves, whether as actresses and dancers, explorers, writers or sculptors.  So on International Day of the Girl, we thought we would hand pick a selection of Yevonde’s notable sitters, some well-known, others obscured by the passage of time, but all (or at least most) deserving to be immortalised through Yevonde’s camera lens.

Margaret Morris (1891-1980), dance pioneer – Yevonde and Margaret Morris were friends, a fact reflected in the number of photographs Yevonde took of her over the years. Morris’s avant-garde ideas about dance began at an early age when she rebelled against the formality of ballet lessons and became influenced by Raymond Duncan, the brother of Isadora Duncan. She established a dancing school, funded by the novelist John Galsworthy after a brief if intense love affair, and began to adapt her techniques so that all abilities could benefit from her ideas about movement and free expression, notably disabled children. Alongside this, during the First World War she established a social club in Chelsea akin to a salon called the Margaret Morris Club, frequented by luminaries such as Augustus John and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The Margaret Morris Movement system remains a touchstone of modern day dance.  Morris herself was still choreographing at the age of eighty-one for a production of ‘Hair’ in Glasgow, where she had settled in 1939 with her partner, the artist John Duncan Fergusson.

Margaret Morris (1891 - 1980), famous dancer and dance teacher.

Clare Sheridan (1885-1970), writer and sculptor – The cousin of Winston Churchill (their mothers were sisters) Clare Sheridan rebelled against her privileged and stultifying existence from an early age. The death of her daughter in 1914, led her to sculpt a memorial headstone and realise she had found a talent, but in addition to her work as a sculptor, she spent periods as a war reporter and writer, living for a time in Soviet Russia, travelling by motorcycle across southern Russia in the 1920s and building a retreat for herself in Biskra, Algeria. The photographs by Yevonde of her in a feathered headdress were taken after she had spent time at an art colony on a Native American reservation in the Rocky Mountains, the result of which was a London exhibition of Native American heads she had whittled from forest trees.

Clare Sheridan by Madame Yevonde

Elizabeth Cowell (1912-1998), TV broadcaster –  As one of the first three BBC television service announcers, Cowell was something of a poster girl for the corporation. She made her debut on 31 August 1936 at Alexandra Palace. This photograph from 1940, showing her examining a photograph of herself taken seven years earlier, is typical of Yevonde’s playful use of symbolic props in her work.

Elizabeth Cowell - television presenter by Yevonde

Barbara Cartland (1901-2000) – prolific novelist – Although in later years she was better-known for old-fashioned views on romance and an overpowering penchant for pink, as a young woman, Barbara Cartland began her writing career by providing gossip columns for the Daily Express, propelled mainly due to her family’s dire financial circumstances. By the 1920s, she had climbed to the top of the social pyramid, not only as a journalist but as an indefatigable organiser of fetes, balls and charity matinees. Yevonde’s portraits capture her at different periods of her life – as the fresh ingénue journalist and later, in her primped, glistering, bejewelled splendour in 1970. It’s interesting to note that one Yevonde image was a commission for one of Cartland’s numerous novels.

Barbara Cartland and Raine

Lady Broughton (1894-1968) –  the first wife of Sir Jock Delves Broughton was an intrepid traveller, and this colour photograph, published in The Sketch in 1939, shows her with her squirrel monkey, Mr. Winks, whom she brought from British Guiana in 1938. Previously Miss Vera Griffith-Boscawen, she married Jock in 1913 and divorced him in 1940 (he would go on to marry Diana Caldwell and stand trial for the murder of her lover, Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll in Kenya). Vera travelled widely in South East Asia and was known as a big game hunter and fisherwoman. She was also a highly regarded photographer of natural subjects.

Lady Broughton and Mr Winks by Madame Yevonde

Marie Rambert (1888-1982) – ballet dancer & founder of the Rambert Dance Company. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes Polish-born Rambert as “cultivated, dynamic, alert, witty, and chic” and this photograph by Yevonde of her with Frederick Ashton, which was published in The Tatler in June 1926, seems to sum up those qualities. The pair’s pose was to promote a new ballet, “The Tragedy of Fashion” which was written and arranged by Marie’s husband, Ashley Dukes, with music composed by Eugene Goossens.

Marie Rambert & Frederick Ashton - A Tragedy of Fashion

Jeni LeGon (1916-2012) – dancer and actress.  Jeni LeGon’s speciality was tap and she was one of the first African-American women to establish a solo career in tap dancing, working with Fred Astaire and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. This photo, which appeared in The Sketch in 1936, was taken at the time she was appearing in Charles Cochran’s Follow the Sun at the Adelphi Theatre. In 1935, she had been offered a contract by MGM, another first for an American woman of colour, but Hollywood casting prejudices meant no role was found for her and she found that, despite her generous salary, she was segregated, taking her meals at the studio separately from the rest of the cast and crew. MGM bought out her contract leaving her to travel to Britain to appear in Cochrane’s revue.  LeGon features as a pivotal inspiration in Zadie Smith’s novel, ‘Swing Time’.

Jeni Le Gon by Madame Yevonde

Marjorie Craigie (1888-1937), textile artist – Compared to other sitters in this list, little is known about Marjorie Craigie, and in fact, this picture, which was reproduced at a quarter page or so in The Sketch in 1930 isn’t the best quality, but I wanted to include it because of the confident modernism of Craigie’s personal style. The photograph was taken when an exhibition of her tapestries had just opened at the Bloomsbury Gallery, London. Working in silk and wool, she was influenced by the style of Picasso.

Marjorie Craigie, tapestry artist

The Mitford Sisters – Talented, eccentric, with wildly differing political views, the six Mitford sisters were regular visitors to Madame Yevonde.  We have photographs of Jessica as a debutante, and Nancy and Diana in mirrored portraits during the 1930s when Yevonde was experimenting with all kinds of artistic effects. There is Debo in regal splendour as the chatelaine of Chatsworth and then, there is Diana, who, portrayed as Venus, was one of Yevonde’s immortal goddesses.  The only one missing is Pam – but we live in hope of finding an image of her by Yevonde.

Jessica Mitford

Jill Thomas (1902-1974), racing driver.  In her smart red ensemble, Eileen “Jill” Thomas is a chic and confident symbol of the growing number of women who took to the wheel during the 1920s and 30s.  Introduced to motor racing by her first husband, William “Bummer” Scott, she took part in races at Brooklands, including the first women’s race in 1927, achieving a top speed of 113mph in a supercharged Sunbeam belonging to her husband. Remembered as a fearless and energetic driver, Jill’s wonderful portrait sits alongside other motoring females we have in the archive such as Mrs Victor Bruce, Violet Cordery and Kay Petre.

Jill Thomas - Motor Racing Driver - Madame Yevonde

Dacia (dates unknown) – dancer.  Dacia, the stage name of Miss D. Smallwood, caused something of a sensation when she appeared in the hit musical ‘Chu Chin Chow’ during the First World War. Yevonde photographed her a number of times, perfectly capturing her sensuous, sultry looks; the 1920 image of her, smoking from a curled glass cigarette holder, shows her out of costume but still exhibiting her trademark exotic allure. In 1919, she married Colonel Critchley Salmonson of the Royal Fusiliers, City of London Regiment and, as far as we can tell from our records here, she did not return to the stage.

The dancer, Dacia by Madame Yevonde

Eileen Bennett Whittingstall (1907-1979) – tennis player.  Eileen Bennett’s legacy suffers somewhat from playing at a time when Helen Wills Moody was dominating women’s tennis. Nevertheless, between 1927 and 1931 she won six Grand Slam doubles titles and was a finalist at the French Championship in 1928 and the US Championship in 1931, losing to Moody on both occasions. As a British player, she was the darling of the illustrated magazines and proved a willing sitter for Yevonde, whose circular portrait of Bennett is particularly inventive.

The Eileen Bennett Circular

For many more portraits of famous (and infamous) men and women, type ‘Madame Yevonde’ into our keyword search box.  Mary Evans Picture Library are copyright owners of all Madame Yevonde’s black & white photography and we are also able to license examples of her colour photography.  Do get in touch if you’d like to discuss a project.

Painting the Picture – Art of Feminism

 

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Just over a week ago, I was invited to take part in a panel discussion at one of the Tate Britain’s ‘Tate Lates’ evenings.  Tate Publishing have recently brought out in the UK a new title surveying feminist art called, ‘Art of Feminism’ of which I had been one of the contributing writers, putting together the first section covering women’s art broadly from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.  About a third of the images for the section came from our archives here at the library.  The discussion at this particular Friday late, focused on women artists, past, present and future, and I spoke alongside Sofia Karamani, curator of the Tate Britain’s ‘Sixty Years’ annual exhibition which this year focused on work by women artists in the Tate’s collection.  Also involved were researcher and curator, Helena Reckitt who teaches at Goldsmith’s.  Helena had been consultant editor on the book and chaired the panel, which also included artists, Michelle Williams Gamaker and Tamara Al-Mashouk.  It proved a thought-provoking discussion on the past challenges and present issues still facing women artists in the 21st century.  My job, as the writer of the first part of ‘Art of Feminism’ was to look at the past, set the scene, and map out the obstacles facing women artists a century before a defined feminist movement emerged.  Packing a century of art into 25,000 words and around 75 pages proved difficult, and inevitably it was impossible to include everything I wanted to, but I hope my section presents a balanced and thoughtful overview on the female experience of the art world during this time.

A life class at the Slade Date: 1881
A life class at the Slade Date: 1881

Over four chapters, I cover women artists and photographers during world conflicts, who overcame marginalisation and prejudice to record their, often unique, view of war.  I wrote about the inter-war period with its explosion of experimental art movements and the rise of the modern woman, some of whom achieved economic agency and independence through their art.  And of course, there is a chapter devoted to the art of the suffrage campaign, a political movement which harnessed art and design – mainly by women – to create a distinctive brand and visual identity, still exuding a powerful pull a century since it was conceived.  Forming the foundations of the section, I try to convey the struggle women artists faced in the nineteenth century, and the obstacles they had to overcome to achieve parity with men.  It is not only about WHAT they painted, but also how they managed to become artists at all.

Engraving after the painting by Emily Mary Osborn, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857 and subsequently at the 1862 International Exhibition. A young woman, recently bereaved, visits an art dealer in order to sell a painting. The picture conveyed the isolation felt by women artists at the time in the male-dominated world of art. Date: 1862
Engraving after the painting by Emily Mary Osborn, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857 and subsequently at the 1862 International Exhibition. A young woman, recently bereaved, visits an art dealer in order to sell a painting. The picture conveyed the isolation felt by women artists at the time in the male-dominated world of art. Date: 1862

As part of the discussion, I chose to show, ‘Nameless & Friendless’ by Emily Mary Osborn, a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857, and on display at the Tate Britain (in the 1840 room if you’d like to go and see it  https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/emily-mary-osborn-12441), which speaks very eloquently about the isolation of women artists in a male-dominated world.  Our version shows  an engraving of the painting which appeared in The Illustrated London News in July 1862, at the time the picture was on display at the International Exhibition.  In many ways, the painting follows a traditional Victorian narrative tradition, and mines the rather bleak but popular themes of poverty and destitution.  The central figure of the painting is a young woman who brings in a painting to sell to an art dealer.  Her black dress suggests she has been recently bereaved, and the little boy at her side is most likely a younger brother, for whom she is now responsible.  Consequently, the painting she brings to be assessed, is a device that seems to embody her future, making for a nerve-wracking scene.  What Emily Mary Osborn is very good at is making us, the viewer, feel as uncomfortable as the subject herself.  Here she is, entering a male domain, one in which she, inexperienced, nervous, grieving, has to attempt an economic transaction.  As well as the disdainful look of the art dealer, who isn’t going to give her nearly as much as she’d hope for the picture, there is the pity of his assistant looking down on them from the vantage point of a ladder.  Worse still, a couple of wolfish city swells, lounge around looking at prints of dancers with their shapely legs; they appraise the modest looking young women and we can imagine what they are thinking.  Her only potential ally, another woman, accompanied by her son, is already bustling out of the shop, making her isolated position seem even more acute.   It shows us that the art world is not a kind or encouraging place for a woman to be.  It’s somewhere where she must find her own way.

A still life class at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London Date: 1881
A still life class at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London Date: 1881

In the nineteenth century, there was a dichotomy when it came to women and art.  It’s not that women didn’t paint.  In fact, middle and upper class women were positively encouraged to do so.  Art was an accomplishment that a young lady should take pains to develop.  Godey’s Lady’s Book, with a circulation of 150,000 in the United States during the 1860s and 1870s, featured “A Course of Lessons on Drawing,” though more pages focused on needlework and decorative art for the household.  British writer, Sarah Stickney Ellis addressed the subject of art and its benefits to young women in Daughters of England, (a copy of which we have in the library alongside Godey’s), one of four popular advice manuals she authored. “Amongst these advantages” she wrote of drawing “I will begin with the least – it is quiet.  It disturbs no one; for however defective the performance may be, it does not necessarily, like music, jar upon the sense.  It is true, it may when seen offend the practised eye; but we can always draw in private, and keep our productions to ourselves.”  Stickney’s suggestion that art could be carried out by women quietly, and without disturbing anyone, speaks volumes about the idea that any learning or cultivation of talents should be exercised purely within the framework of family obligations.  But, to turn a benign hobby into a successful career?  To exhibit and sell pictures?  To BE a professional artist?  That’s where the encouragement stopped and the barriers went up.  There was an implicit & collective belief that woman’s designated role was to be the ‘angel of the home’.  An unmarried woman’s ambition was to marry, and then, once married, her prime focus was to raise a family in a good & Christian way.

A life class for female art students, Paris. Date: 1894
A life class for female art students, Paris. Date: 1894

If women wanted an art education in the 1800s, they had to fight for it.  Some were lucky, like Emily Mary Osborn, who had a progressive family who encouraged her to become an artist. She had a strong support network, not only familial, but she was a central figure in female networks including the Society for Women Artists, which formed in 1857.  She was also involved in the early suffrage movement (it is notable, though perhaps unsurprising, that a number of women artists were also suffrage supporters), but other women would not have the same advantages.

The Art Class. Sullivan, Edmund Joseph 1869 - 1933. Date:
The Art Class. Sullivan, Edmund Joseph 1869 – 1933. Date:

Two art schools opened for women in London in the 1840s – the Female School of Art, and the National Art Training School.  Both emphasised training in the applied arts for manufacturing and industry.  While this suited many women, for those who wished to become ‘fine’ artists, opportunities were scarce.  Central to an art education was the study of the human form in life classes.  And in most cases, women were denied access to a life class with a nude model in the interests of propriety.  The Royal Academy, the hub of the art establishment, would not admit women to their school, despite two women, Mary Moser and Angelica Kaufmann being among its founding members in the eighteenth century.  In 1860, artist Laura Herford submitted a picture signed only with her initials, which was judged of sufficient standard to gain admittance for its artist.  When her identity was revealed, the Academy could find no rules to prevent her entering the school.  To say Herford opened the floodgates for women at the Royal Academy would be to exaggerate.  The RA remained reluctant for several decades and did little to encourage women students, some years putting a stop to their entry altogether.  Not until 1922, did they admit a female associate member (Laura Swynnerton) and finally, in 1936, Laura Knight became its first woman Academician since the institution’s founding.  The opening of the Slade School of art in 1871 was to mark a watershed moment, in that men and women both attended. It offered a serious alternative to the Royal Academy school as part of a liberal arts university, and could count Kate Greenaway, Evelyn de Morgan, Gwen John and Winifred Knights among its female alumni.  Life classes however, remained segregated and for women attending the nude model was not actually nude but draped.  Some women art students, in both Paris and London, felt so frustrated at the obstructions to this, they paid for their own anatomy classes, or life classes where the model was undraped.  It goes without saying that privilege also played a part in women gaining access to an art education.  In the latter part of the 19th century, hoards of American women art students travelled to Paris to seek training in artists’ ateliers, or at the Academie Julian, or Academie Colorossi, both of which opened up their studios to female students.  Clearly an art education was impossible for any woman without the means to fund it.

Art Studio - Queen's College, Harley Street. Ladies sketching a model, with the teacher alongside. Various classical busts surround the studio as inspiration and examples of the finest classical form and structure... Some of the women have chosen these to draw instead! Date: circa 1910s
Art Studio – Queen’s College, Harley Street. Ladies sketching a model, with the teacher alongside. Various classical busts surround the studio as inspiration and examples of the finest classical form and structure… Some of the women have chosen these to draw instead! Date: circa 1910s

As I picked my way through this century of women artists, what became very clear is that, in many ways, there was no such defining feature of ‘women’s art’.  The images I chose had to be as much about the experience of being a woman in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as the feminist signals within their work.  On one of the first pages, an impressionist portrait of two sisters by Berthe Morisot, sits alongside the muscular dynamism of The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur.  Two women working at a similar time but with vastly differing styles.  After all, why should women artists be lumped together into a homogeonous mass, and produce only one ‘type’ or style of painting? Their work was as individual (and as good or bad) as male artists.    But if women wanted the freedom to paint what they wished but be taken seriously and perhaps forge a career, they had to have that training.

Six girls in art a high school art class drawing plaster casts of classical sculpture. 19th century art training immersed students in classical aesthetics. 1899.
Six girls in art a high school art class drawing plaster casts of classical sculpture. 19th century art training immersed students in classical aesthetics. 1899.

By the turn of the century, schools such as the Slade, and, in Paris, Academie Julian had far more female students than men, and the idea of the art student as female had become much more accepted.  Magazines in our archive such as The Sketch and Lady’s Realm (with a largely female readership) ran regular in-depth articles on various art schools and their specialities.   Women continued to fight to gain equality in the art world.  For instance, women students were charged 30 per cent more in fees than their male counterparts in some schools.  One of the reasons for this argued the Academie Colorossi was because women insisted the place was clean and the floors were swept!  At the Academie Julian however, the weekly art competition, where paintings were submitted anonymously, were frequently won by woman.  Interviewed in The Sketch in 1893, Rodolphe Julian, founder of the school, praised his female students as hard working and diligent.  He added, in a comment that would have been considered radical a few decades earlier, “People often say that, with only one or two exceptions, no woman has made a great name in art; but they were given none of the opportunities which each artist claimed as his right.”

The women's class in an art school in Schwabing while Nude drawing, probably in the women's academy in Barer Street 21.
The women’s class in an art school in Schwabing while Nude drawing, probably in the women’s academy in Barer Street 21.

By the Second World War, a quarter of artists commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee were women.  This was some sort of progress, but nowhere near equality, especially as most were paid less and given fewer commissions.  Only one woman – Evelyn Dunbar – was salaried.

A class of female students at the London County School of Sculpture modelling clay busts based on live models. Date: 1930s
A class of female students at the London County School of Sculpture modelling clay busts based on live models. Date: 1930s

So where are we now?  The evening’s discussion was rounded off listening to the experiences of Tamara and Michelle, both of whom still encountered issues when creating their work, whether related to funding, or finding that, as women artists of colour, they were often limited by perceptions of identity, and offered fewer opportunities to exhibit.  Afterwards, I wondered what the women artists of a century and a half ago would have thought about those of today.  Would they view them as lucky with opportunities and freedoms they could only have dreamt of?  Would they be in awe that in the last decade, women Turner Prize winners have outnumbered men.  Or would they still feel frustration that male artists still vastly outnumber female artists in almost every gallery around the world?  The women who broke convention to seek an art education, and who painted pictures that proved they were the equal of male artists, were an integral part of the history of the women’s rights movement, and laid strong foundations for future generations of female artists.  It was a fascinating and illuminating experience to be able to tell their story.

A sculpture student works on a clay model on a tripod, while a nude model poses for her, at the Central School of Art and Design (now Central St Martins College of Art and Design), London. Date: 1957
A sculpture student works on a clay model on a tripod, while a nude model poses for her, at the Central School of Art and Design (now Central St Martins College of Art and Design), London. Date: 1957

© Lucinda Gosling

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‘The Art of Feminism’ is published by Tate Publishing, edited by Helen Reckitt, and written by Lucinda Gosling, Amy Tobin and Hilary Robinson.

Students at the Painting School, Pelham Street, nr. South Kensington Station, London. Principals: A. S. Cope, A.R.A and J. Watson Nicol. Date: 1910
Students at the Painting School, Pelham Street, nr. South Kensington Station, London. Principals: A. S. Cope, A.R.A and J. Watson Nicol. Date: 1910