Jewelled snuffboxes, miniature Indian paintings, panels of luminous stained glass, and a pair of golden shoes are among the many treasures kept in the V&A that sparked Tim Walker’s imagination while he scoured the museum’s collection of over 2.3m objects. Using these items as a springboard, Walker has produced 10 new photographic projects which will be shown within a major exhibition of his life’s work that opens at the V&A in London this September.
“The V&A has always been a palace of dreams – it’s the most inspiring place in the world,” says Walker, in a statement issued by the V&A. “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 my emotional reaction to it.”
Since coming up with the idea five years ago with V&As curator of photography Susanna Brown, Walker has searched through the museum’s 145 galleries, and met with curators and conservators to uncover precious artefacts that are hidden in storage. As part of his research, he even scaled the roof of the South-Kensington museum to gain a better understanding of the layout of the buildings; a historic site which has grown organically since its conception in the 1850s.
Walker is known for producing some of fashion’s most whimsical and inventive photography projects. Distinguished by extravagant staging and themes of romance and seduction, his work has appeared in almost every glossy fashion magazine. “It is rare for the V&A to give an exhibition of this scale to a photographer so young [Walker is 49 this year], but I feel that he has achieved so much over the last 25 years. His work speaks to so many people,” says Susanna Brown. “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 Walker: Wonderful Things will begin with 100 images to illustrate Walker’s impressive 25-year-career. It will include portraits of some of the biggest names in fashion like Edie Campbell and Alexander McQueen, as well as David Attenborough, Peter Blake and David Hockney. One wall will be devoted to his muses, which include Tilda Swinton, Lindsay Kemp, and artist Grayson Perry. The first part of the exhibition will end with five projects devoted to nude photography.
The main exhibition space is designed by the acclaimed set designer Shona Heath, who is also Walker’s long-term collaborator. Separated into 10 specially designed rooms, each photograph will be presented alongside the objects that inspired Walker’s image.
In a room titled Pen & Ink for example, Aubrey Beardley’s provocative 1890’s illustrations will be displayed in a green velvet-clad room, next to 10 of Walker’s interpretive images, inspired by Beardley’s illustrations. In another room titled Handle with Care, an image of three mannequin-like models will be displayed next to a dress from Alexander McQueen’s seminal 2009 collection, The Horn of Plenty. Walker wanted to reimagine his first encounter with McQueen’s dress when he visited The Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion, where the V&A’s textile conservators care for the museum’s world-leading fashion collection.
Curator Susanna Brown accompanied Walker for a large part of his research and production process. She recalls the immediate, emotional reactions that Walker had to objects, and how he would sit in object stores, scribbling down ideas and set designs as they formed in his mind. “He describes it as an emotional reaction, like falling in love at first sight,” says Brown, explaining how Walker wanted to challenge himself by looking outside of the fashion and photography collections that he already knew he loved.
The V&A will be sharing this personal and collaborative process through a series of behind-the-scenes videos, which will be uploaded to the V&A website ahead of the opening. “Ultimately, what Tim and I hope is that visitors will see how the collection has inspired Tim, and from there they will find their own treasures that spark their own imagination,” says Brown, “that will be part of the legacy of the exhibition.”
Tim Walker: Wonderful Things will run at the V&A in London from 21 September 2019 to 08 March 2020 https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/tim-walker