By  on January 27, 2005

LONDON — “Be original or die,” was the dictum of Madame Yevonde, the British photographer and portraitist who made her name transforming society women into goddesses and mythical monsters in the Thirties.

The National Portrait Gallery is currently displaying 14 of her color portraits in its exhibition “Goddesses and Others: Photographs by Madame Yevonde,” which runs until May 30. The show coincides with the 70th anniversary of Yevonde’s original exhibition, which was held in her Berkeley Square studio in 1935.

In that year, Yevonde set about transforming debs, socialites and titled ladies into fantasy creatures such as the snake-haired Medusa, The Tempest’s Ariel and goddesses Hecate and Niobe.

“Yevonde had lots of props in her studio but the sitters would generally have their costumes made themselves,” said Terence Pepper, curator of photography at the National Portrait Gallery.

Her mythical theme had been inspired by the Olympian Ball held at Claridge’s the same year and a portrait she had shot a few years earlier of Lady Anne Rhys as the Roman flower goddess Flora. Guests at the ball, including designer Elsa Schiaparelli, appeared in mythological costumes designed by Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel, Eleanor Abbey and Derek Hill.

Yevonde chose Mrs. Edward Mayer, wife of the film director, to be Medusa due to her deep blue eyes. She was dressed up with rubber snakes that Yevonde had bought and painted dark green herself. For Ceres, the goddess of corn, Yevonde draped Lady Dorothy Etta Warrender in garlands of flowers and photographed her with a tall corn headdress. She selected Aileen Leatherman, Lady Balcon, to become the goddess of war, Minerva. Her costume featured a golden blouse and black riding hat, scarlet lips and nails — and a gun.

For self-portraits, Yevonde regularly dressed in costume. Indeed, dressing up was something she was clearly born to do, according to the exhibition catalogue. She was delivered by a doctor who was on his way to a costume party, dressed as one of Louis XVI’s courtiers.

Yevonde joined the women’s suffrage movement in 1910, at 17, and after seeing an advertisement in The Suffragette decided to become a photographer’s apprentice. She trained under leading West End photographer Madame Lallie Charles of Curzon Street and four years later set up alone, under her new chosen name of Madame Yevonde.Frustrated by the limitations of black-and-white photography at the time, Yevonde, whose real name was Yevonde Philone Cumbers, was keen to learn the new process of color printing, which finally became possible in 1930. She was one of the first to use the Vivex Carbro color process, which involves three negatives — and she was making the most of it, according to the exhibition catalogue.

At first, she shot straightforward color portraits, including the flame-haired actress Joan Maude wearing a cherry coat and posed against a bright red background, the catalogue explains. But goddesses lay in her future.

“Hurrah! We are in for exciting times. Red hair, uniforms, exquisite complexions and colored fingernails come into their own,” Yevonde exclaimed at the time of her new world of color.

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