Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things

“As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold… I was dumbstruck with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’” – The Tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter, 16 November 1922.

Words JOHN WILLIAM Photography courtesy of TIM WALKER and THE V&A

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things has opened at the V&A, and such wonderful things await the intrepid gallery explorer. This exhibition will bring a wet and wide eyed smile to even the most jaded visitor. Not really a retrospective, most of the work on show has been created over the last couple of years in response to artefacts Tim excavated from the V&A archives. “Tim met about forty different curators and experts and staff here at the museum,” says the exhibition curator Susanna Brown. “Working together we had so many glorious moments, like when we went for a hike to visit the beehives that live on the roof of the building in their little secret garden. The building has grown in quite an organic way over many decades, over twelve acres! And when you’re on the roof you really feel like the V&A is a whole city of its own. There are so many different roofscapes and every way you look, you’re looking at more V&A, and it was great fun to explore the roof and have a view of the museum that no one else gets. And really, that’s what Tim has done. He’s viewed the museum in his unique, extraordinary way, and then created something that all of us can enjoy. For me as a curator, that’s a dream project.”

Left: The Peacock Skirt. Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) 1894. Line block print on Japanese vellum paper. The V&A collection © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Right: Tim Walker. Pen & Ink. Duckie Thot, Aubrey’s shadow. Fashion: Saint Laurent. London, 2017 © Tim Walker Studio

INTO THE GARDEN. “My grandparents’ house was full of clocks that went tick-tock and chimed quarterly throughout the day as Grandma smoked her cigarettes and read us stories about Captain Hook and Tiger Lily. In front of their house stood a very large lime tree and I would spend hours beneath it searching for four-leaf clovers. Once I found one.”

Ten tiny objects have inspired ten epic photographic stories. A gold gilded watercolour from sixteenth century Lahore, Edith Sitwell’s silver shoes, a 275 year old lacquered snuff box not much bigger than your thumb. And as you travel through the exhibition you read Tim’s beautiful and personal words. “It’s much more magical to hear from Tim firsthand and to understand when you read his text, his emotional reaction to the objects that he saw here. Or occasionally, he’ll tell a little story of a memory from his childhood” Brown recalls Tim’s process of combing through the archives, connecting to the artefacts. “In the cathedral-like space in the beginning he writes, ‘I’ve always loved the illuminated red of stained glass,’ and the reason he loves illuminated red is because his mother. When he was a little boy she made big red silk lampshades for the living room of their house. So it’s not about the red in its purest form in the stained glass; it’s actually about personal memories. It’s about sweetie wrappers and the red of a photographer’s dark room light and so many other things. He takes you by the hand and guides you on this amazing sort of odyssey through his dreams, through his imagination, through his very extraordinary mind.”

Ten tiny objects have inspired ten epic photographic stories. A gold gilded watercolour from sixteenth century Lahore, Edith Sitwell’s silver shoes, a 275 year old lacquered snuff box not much bigger than your thumb.

The intensely emotional and unapologetically personal vantage point of this show evokes Diana Vreeland’s outstretched red fingernails; the curious and celebratory way she presented costume at the Met. You have fact, you have history, you have culture… but it’s the personal (the red of mum’s lanterns, the rustle of the sweetie wrapper) that bring it together, and mean that everyone who walks through can relate to it. “You’ve hit the nail on the head” curator Susanna Brown agrees. “With Tim’s pictures, everyone can relate to them. You don’t have to be a fashionista, you don’t have to love dressing up because there’s so much else happening in the pictures. And if you love craft, and you love beauty, and you love storytelling – and who doesn’t love a good story – there’s something in his pictures for you. Also he’s really selected a diverse range of things. He’s selected Medieval objects, Renaissance objects, very contemporary objects, like the Alexander McQueen dress.”

The McQueen dress in question is a blood red gown from Lee’s penultimate collection The Horn of Plenty. The way the dress is presented in this show however is quite different to anything you may have seen at Savage Beauty. The focus is not so much on the Printed red and black silk, it’s more on the extraordinary packaging. “Yeah, and he saw that dress almost exactly as we’ve shown it here, except it was fully wrapped at our Clothworkers’ Centre. He was like ‘Wow! What’s inside here?’ As an object in its own right, he thought it was very beautiful and I think in his research he found it very touching the care and love that our conservators lavish upon fragile, rare, precious objects. That these objects don’t belong to the conservators, they don’t belong to the people who work here. We look after these things and care for them for everyone else to enjoy for many generations to come.” The resulting project ‘Handle With Care’ is a love teller to the conservators and archivists and curators at the V&A.

THE DREAM DEPARTMENT. “Fashion photography is the dream department of photography. When you’re a fashion photographer from the start. Nothing is real.”

The real joy and awe, the oohs and aahs delivered by Wonderful Things comes not only from Tim’s photographs, but from Shona Heath’s extraordinary exhibition design. You really do step through the looking glass. “It’s really weird. I can remember the first moment I met him, and I can’t really remember the first work we did together because it was so natural. We were so young, and I didn’t even know what a set designer was. I don’t think he knew what one was. I think he only just knew what a photographer was! We were really finding our feet, but we found them together.” Set designer par excellence Shona has worked with Tim for more than twenty years. “When I met him, I knew it was special. I was really hungover, and I showed him my sketch books and he showed me his. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh that’s so weird; we like the same stuff,’ and that was it. That was the moment. It didn’t feel big then, but it was.”

Throughout the exhibition, set design from the myriad shoots is on display and it all adds to the Magic Toybox sense of wonder and boundless imagination. One dollhouse pink room ‘Box Of Delights’ was inspired by an embroidered casket made by a teenage girl in 1675. The trinket box is completely covered in intricate layers of embroidery and lifting the lid you find a secret miniature garden filled with tom-thumb trees and statuettes. “When Tim showed me the picture of that… actually, he’d taken such a rubbish picture of it considering he’s a photographer! So I had to go and see it again in the archive. It was amazing, and the conservator said, ‘This was like an iPhone to a thirteen-year-old-girl then.’ Her secrets would’ve been kept in there, keys to another chest, perhaps. And the little garden was my set. So, what I did was almost blow it up to life-size, but I didn’t want to replicate the sort of vintage feeling that the casket has now. When it was made it would have had really vibrant colours. I think we always think of past lives in sepia, but they weren’t. They had great colours. And I wanted to make something that looked look like it was made today.”

Left: Snuff box. Lacquer panels about 1745, gold mounts about 1800. Gold, lacquer, inlaid hardstones and burgau shell. The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the V&A © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Right: Tim Walker. Lil' Dragon. Ling Ling and the Dragon. Fashion: Marta Hermosillo Lopez and Eelko. London, 2018 © Tim Walker Studio

Looking at the set close-up you see the plums dripping off tree branches are actually fluffy pompoms with pipe cleaner stalks. Shona and Tim’s work no matter how grand in scale, always retains the naïve charm of the school nativity. “I think Tim and I are both children at heart. It’s that excitement of going to a stationary shop, or craft shop, a hardware shop. We’re the sort of kids who pick up a pencil and go, ‘Ooh, nice pencil.’ So, pompoms and pipe cleaners – the innocence of them – is something that I gravitate to. I like things that are gentle and soft and bit fuzzy around the edges because I also really like how they photograph. I’m always trying to put in different textures with not such defined edges, so that there’s a dream dust magic going on. I quite often use pigment, and for ‘Box Of Delights’ we actually covered the cherries with makeup rather than paint. I mean it’s such good fun coloring in a pompom cherry with some blusher… why do it with paint when you can do it a makeup brush?”

It’s not all fluffy fruit, trays of tarts and happily ever after however. Tim Walker’s photographs have changed a lot since the fairytale started. “I think that for sure comes with confidence” Shona says, “and also learning more about life and seeing beauty in darkness. You call is a perversity, I call it a dark playfulness.” A worm in the chocolate box? “Yeah, exactly. Which I would be really freaked out by actually. [laughs] I never want to see a worm in my chocolate box!”

“I think Tim and I are both children at heart. It’s that excitement of going to a stationary shop, or craft shop, a hardware shop. We’re the sort of kids who pick up a pencil and go, ‘Ooh, nice pencil.’ So, pompoms and pipe cleaners – the innocence of them – is something that I gravitate to" Shona Heath.

THE LAND OF THE LIVING MEN. “I’m fascinated by the spectrum of masculinity in all its glorious manifestations… I wanted to magnify the male nude by making it as big as I possibly could to explore the taboo of the homoerotic.”

One place you can really feel the evolution of Tim’s work is in the nudes that form a crucial part of the exhibition. The William Morris inspired ‘Land of the Living Men’ is displayed somewhat ironically alongside one of the most curious items from the V&A archive: a dinner plate sized plaster fig leaf apparently created to cover (Michelangelo’s) David’s meat and two veg. Looking at the most recent of Tim’s work you really do feel the fig leaf is off, and we are getting a raw, uncensored Walker. “Tim is a risk taker” says curator Susanna Brown. “He is fearless and that’s important as a creative person. You can’t be afraid. I think in recent years, he’s been much braver about talking about his own more personal experiences and you’ll notice in this show the references to being a gay man in the 21st Century, work that perhaps ten years ago, Tim wasn’t ready to tackle and speak about in such a public way. His work is not just about clothes or fashion. Although, of course, we love clothes and fashion at the V&A, but it’s about so much more. It’s about societal issues and debates of the 21st Century, it’s about political issues, it’s about environmental issues, and I think that is what is very extraordinary and rare in the way that Tim approaches fashion photography. It’s never just about the clothes. The clothes are part of a constructed narrative that’s about so many other things, and sometimes that thing is a beautiful story – a fairytale – and sometimes that thing is actually quite a hard hitting comment on a relevant issue of the day, but the pictures are so beautiful and magical that often you don’t realize that’s what’s going on, that they are hitting hard, and that’s really a gift that Tim has.”

In an industry that now moves at lightening speed, where commerce comes before play, Wonderful Things is a glorious tribute to imagination and a testament to hard work and creative perseverance. Tim Walker, Shona Heath and all of the talented individuals at the V&A have created a real wonderland that will galvanize your spirit and fuel your creative fires.

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things is at the V&A from 21 September 2019 to 8 March 2020