Richard Ansett

Tattoo by Yevonde, tri-colour separation negative, 1938 © National Portrait Gallery. London – Richard Ansett with tattoo, self portrait, iPhone 15, 2023 

There is a temptation to try and make sense of Madame Yevonde’s compelling tattoo studies and I confess I made this mistake when Clare Freestone, curator of the National Portrait Gallery exhibition ‘Life and Color’, first invited me to respond to this series. Early photography can have a sense of being ‘found’, like a pile of old photographs in a junk shop and part of the appeal is in its mystery but this distance can also expose it to the mis-judgement of our contemporary gaze.

Freestone celebrates Madame Yevonde, as previously under-represented pioneer of the medium and in her research for the excellent exhibition and catalogue, she reveals the photographer’s early color experiments as pivotal to the medium’s evolution. Color’s challenge as a closer facsimile to life (relative to black and white I mean) is skilfully manipulated by Yevonde who succeeds in overcoming the significant technical challenges of the time to transcend reality in her unique, dare I say camp creations. Camp is something I understand and my own creations with my long suffering subject and muse Sir Grayson Perry may have inspired Clare Freestone to ask me specifically to respond to these mysterious tattoo images.

In my hopeless quest to de-code them, I returned to the meticulously researched catalogue. Within these pages there are hints of the dichotomy between Yevonde’s commitment to social equality for women, with a marriage which seems, from our present perspective, in direct contrast to her well documented feminist cred. Her documented happy marriage to the playwright Edgar Middleton, whose autobiography includes chapters with provocative titles like Women aren’t wonderful and Why I hate women are so jarring to me, its hard to reconcile Yevonde the amazing trailblazer with the idea of her as the devoted wifey to a card carrying misogynist. But perhaps, like the tattoo images themselves, the context has been lost in time and I am bringing that same contemporary judgement (and my own) that may not fairly represent them or the times. BUT no matter how uncomfortable or misguided, this introduces an additional filter through which to explore my relationship to the tattoo works and I now see them partly as a betrayl of an artist’s longing for romantic and sexual escape. In one of the images a model’s bejewelled hand caresses the forbidden fruit juxtaposed with a loosened love knot.

In Yevonde’s era, tattoos once only considered the product of the ‘unrestrained passion of the lower classes’, had become an essential ‘accoutrement’ for the fashionable middle classes.  They speak as much to the unexplored desire of the repressed middle and upper class, as an anonymous sailor grabs the ropes of a mysterious ship, absconding with an unknown woman (Yevonde herself perhaps), her own dalliance with sexual and romantic salvation represented by a daring little butterfly tattoo. I’m projecting now, it’s me and I’m on board this fantasy vessel with my hunky sailor, pulling on the rigging together against a Gauguin-esq sky. These images are triggering memories of my own unfulfilled passion and need for exotic escape as a young gay man and the thrill and adventure that accompanies the realisation of a less mediocre sexuality – happy days.

Are these the subconscious accidents of a woman trapped between two worlds? Could they be a coded communication from an era in revolution, a message in a bottle sent to the future from a woman wrestling with her own complex relationship? Or perhaps a woman at odds with the deep seated conservative notions instilled by a society then that we can still recognise now. Ultimately though, sometimes the more we discover the less we truly understand.

I am reminded of a deeply personal moment when I was first introduced to a letter written at the time of my birth by my biological mother. In it she was explaining the reasons why she had given me up for adoption. The more I read, the more questions I had and the less I felt I understood but the one overwhelming truth was that the letter was written in her hand and it had touched the pages now in my hands. Some things are not always meant to be conventionally understood and it is a mistake to consider the tattoo studies as merely incomplete pieces of evidence whose meaning has been lost in time. We can misunderstand photography as merely documentation rather than the fascinating and complex art form that it is. We can never truly understand the mind that created these images and in the attempt to unravel a mystery, we can miss the bigger picture. Like my mother’s letter and the very best art, it can inspire a deeply personal response because of, rather than in spite of the ambiguity.

In the 1990’s HIV AIDS was still a terrifying prospect not just the disease but the shame was palpable. By that time we all knew the risks but there were still moments when passion overrode even the fear of death and I, like many others, dared to roll the dice. I had a high risk encounter which left me greatly fearful for my own health and when I developed an unshakable throat infection, I was engulfed with this secret shame, unique to my generation alongside a palpable mortal terror. When I arrived for my appointment with a specialist at the Ear Nose and Throat Clinic in London, I was barely able to manage my anxiety, convinced that the life as I understood it might be over. In the atrium was a statue of Saint Blasius the patron Saint of throats. I felt I had nowhere to park my hopelessness in that moment and I made a silent pact with the traditional God of my childhood that if I was reprieved I would permanently mark myself with a tattoo of the name of the saint as penance for my atheist hypocrisy. So now sits quietly on my arm, as ambiguous to those that don’t know me as Madame Yolande’s are to us now but it is a vital tool in my empathy for others as a permanent reminder of the limits of myself.