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Madame Yevonde's goddess legacy

The 1920s society portrait photographer has inspired a new exhibition of photographs of women by Neeta Madahar
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Yevonde Cumbers Middleton was a groundbreaking society portrait photographer in 1920s Britain who built a glittering reputation as a snapper under the exotic moniker Madame Yevonde. A former Suffragette and women’s liberationist, she was an independent businesswoman, visionary artist and early exponent of colour photographer.

Her portraits of the It Girls and Boys of the day graced the glossy pages of Tatler, People and Sketch and appear, to a modern standpoint, like freeze frames of a devil-may-care Golden Era of celebrity and society. Anybody who was anybody, from Barbara Cartland to Noel Coward, clamoured to be immortalised under her quirky lens.

In the Thirties colour photography was seen as rather vulgar to a public accustomed to the flattering shades of black and white. But Yevonde’s pioneering experimentation with the ethereal washes of Vivex colour helped convert the hoards to brighter hues.

Her surrealist, possibly Man Ray-inspired, portraits received considerable acclaim and Yevonde is most famous for Goddesses , a series of theatrically staged colour photographs depicting mythological figures such as Europa and Medusa.

She used 1930s socialites as models including Lady Diana Mosely, wife of fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosely ,as Venus, and Mrs Anthony Eden, wife of the Foreign Secretary, as the Muse of History. The series was inspired by a 1935 costume party at where the illustrious guests dressed as classical figures.

More than 75 years later Goddesses is still influencing modern photographers. An exhibition of Yevonde’s work opens on Saturday at the PM Gallery & House in Ealing alongside photographs by modern artist Neeta Madahar.

For Madahar’s Flora series she invited her female friends to model for reinterpretations and new works inspired by Goddesses. The images bear all the hallmarks of glossy, highly stylised publicity shots, construing a stylised vision of mythical femininity, but the artist has deliberately refrained from digitally retouching them to show the images of mature women in all their natural glory.

Role Play: Madame Yevonde and Neeta Madahar is at the PM Gallery & House, Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, London from 20 May to 3 July 2011 www.ealing.gov.uk/pmgalleryandhouse