The V&A’s latest exhibition, ‘Tim Walker: Wonderful Things’ invites visitors into the fantastical imagination of one of the world’s most renowned photographers, featuring the largest exhibition of Walker’s pictures to date, celebrating his "extraordinary contribution” to image-making over the last 25 years and the inspirational role that the museum’s collection has had on him.
Opening on September 21, the exhibition is much more than a retrospective of Walker’s work, instead, it peers into his whimsical imagination and explores what inspires him. Showcasing more than 300 items, the exhibition encompasses not just his most iconic photographs, of Tilda Swinton, Grace Jones, Karen Elson and Grayson Perry, but also V&A objects, short films, photographic sets and props, scrapbooks and sketches, and over 150 brand new images inspired by objects in the V&A’s collections.
At the heart of the exhibition is 10 major new photographic projects, directly influenced by treasures from the V&A’s collection that were picked out by Walker himself, after meeting many of the museum’s curators, conservators and technicians. These include illuminated Medieval manuscripts and stained glass, vivid Indian miniature paintings, jewelled snuffboxes, erotic illustrations, golden shoes, and a 65-metre-long photograph of the Bayeux Tapestry, the largest photograph in the museum’s collection, as well as an Alexander McQueen dress.
It was these and other rare artefacts that inspired Walker’s new photographs, which are displayed in the exhibition designed by Shona Heath, one of the world’s leading set designers and creative directors, behind some of the most inventive sets crafted for magazine editorials, advertising campaigns and fashion shows, and has worked in collaboration with Walker for almost 20 years.
Commenting on the exhibition, and the importance of the V&A to him, Tim Walker said in a statement: “To me, the V&A has always been a palace of dreams – it’s the most inspiring place in the world. The museum’s collection is so wide and eclectic, and I think that’s why it resonates with me so much.
“Many of the objects that I saw during my research at the museum made my heart swell and I wanted to try to create a photograph that would relate not only to the physical presence and beauty of that object, but also to my emotional reaction to it.”
The exhibition begins with more than 100 pictures from Walker’s previous projects and extracts from his Super 8 films, displayed in a sleek, white space. These images include some of the biggest names in fashion, such as Edie Campbell, Lily Cole, Lindsey Wixson and Stella Tennant as well as designers including Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Comme des Garçons and Rick Owens. It highlights varying reference points from fairy tales to The Beatles’ lyrics, as well as his avoidance of Photoshop and other virtual tools in favour of beautifully crafted physical sets and awe-inspiring locations, from Myanmar to Japan and Mexico.
Highlights include intimate disposables taken at Glastonbury, iconic Vogue editorials, portraits of Sir David Attenborough, Margaret Atwood, Peter Blake and David Hockney, as well as a whole wall devoted to his many muses, including Tilda Swinton and Lindsay Kemp, models Kristen McMenamy and Kate Moss, and the artist Grayson Perry.
While the opening room has the appearance of any other photography gallery exhibition, the rest of the space reveals a darker environment, rich with texture, colour and sound, where Heath’s spectacular design guides visitors on a journey through Walker’s enchanted world with ten evocative rooms dedicated to his new series of photographs inspired by the V&A. They have all been designed to make visitors feel like they are stepping directly into the photographs themselves, with Heath creating sets and props at great height.
“Each new shoot is a love letter to an object from the V&A collection, and an attempt to capture my encounter with the sublime,” explains Walker. “For me, beauty is everything. I’m interested in breaking down the boundaries that society has created, to enable more varied types of beauty and the wonderful diversity of humanity to be celebrated. Preparing for this exhibition over the past three years has pushed me into new territories, which is very exciting, and I’m at a stage in my life where I feel brave enough to do that.”
To highlight Walker’s love of the V&A, the pieces he chose and the photography series, he has written all the text to introduce each room, giving personal insight and celebrating the talents of the many collaborators who help bring his ideas to life, including stylists and creatives Katy England, Amanda Harlech and Jerry Stafford, and hair and make-up artists Sam Bryant, Malcolm Edwards and Hungry/Johannes Jaruraak among others.
The first gallery is Illuminations, where visitors walk inside a burnt-out cathedral cloister, in which sixteenth-century stained glass panels and an exquisite illuminated manuscript made in the 1470s for the Duchess of Brittany inspires a series of photographs featuring Grace Jones.
Another room, Pen and Ink, takes the whiplash graphic lines of Aubrey Beardsley’s provocative illustrations from the 1890s as a starting point. A green velvet-clad room displays some of Beardsley’s best-known works, leading into a stark white photographic studio, filled with 10 photographs capturing Walker’s witty take on Beardsley’s masterpieces.
One of the highlighted rooms, Handle with Care, takes inspiration from the work of the V&A’s textile conservators who care for the museum’s world-leading fashion and textiles collection. Here, Walker’s pictures of Karen Elson, James Crewe and Sgàire Wood are displayed alongside a dress from Alexander McQueen’s 2009 The Horn of Plenty collection, partially wrapped in protective fabric. The scene reimagines Walker’s first encounter with the dress when he visited The Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion.
Towards the end of the exhibition, visitors enter a vibrant yellow room reminiscent of a grand country house. A film projection flickers within a vast fireplace and the walls are hung with multiple portraits inspired by items in the V&A’s collection which once belonged to the poet Edith Sitwell. This shoot with Tilda Swinton, herself a distant relative of Sitwell, took place at the family’s manor house, Renishaw Hall.
Susanna Brown, curator of photographs at the V&A, added: “We started discussing this project back in 2015 and it’s been a marvellous journey. Tim embarked on a sustained exploration of the museum and many V&A colleagues helped to spark his imagination by unlocking our collection stores and sharing the fascinating stories behind the objects with him.
“Tim has a wildly inquisitive mind and a boundless energy, he never stops innovating and these new pictures are some of the most spectacular he has ever made. Tim’s photographs and Shona’s exhibition design combine to create a show that I think our visitors will adore. The book which accompanies the exhibition reveals more about his complex process and includes fascinating interviews with Tim and twenty of his closest collaborators.”
Beyond the exhibition, The Modern Media Gallery in the V&A’s Photography Centre screens Walker’s newest film, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, a ballet performed by Harry Alexander and Jordan Robson, in costumes inspired by paper dolls in the V&A Museum of Childhood. Walker rewrote the original Hans Christian Andersen tale to create a moving gay love story, narrated by actress Gwendoline Christie.
Tim Walker: Wonderful Things is open from September 21 to March 8, 2020, at the V&A in London.
Images: courtesy of the V&A