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Tim Walker: Wonderful Things

Start Date 21 September 2019
End Date 22 March 2020
Venue V&A
Location London, UK
Curator Susanna Brown
Designer Shona Heath
Exhibition display of styilised mannequins on a circular set mounted with imagery and angel like installation above

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things 

Galleries 38a and 38 

21 September 2019 – 8 March 2020 | #TimWalkerxVAM 

Tilda Swinton, Grace Jones, Karen Elson and Grayson Perry feature in largest-ever exhibition on photographer Tim Walker – with over 150 new works inspired by the V&A’s collection.

On 21 September, the V&A opens a new immersive exhibition inviting visitors to experience the fantastical imagination of Tim Walker, one of the world’s most inventive photographers. Tim Walker: Wonderful Things is the largest exhibition of Walker’s pictures to date. It celebrates his extraordinary contribution to imagemaking over the last 25 years and the inspirational role that the V&A’s collection plays in his creative process. 

At the heart of the exhibition are 10 major new photographic projects, directly influenced by treasures in the V&A’s vast collection. In preparation for the exhibition, Walker visited object stores and conservation studios, meeting many of the museum’s curators, conservators and technicians. He scoured the V&A’s 145 public galleries, scaled the roof of the 12-acre South Kensington site, and explored the labyrinth of Victorian passages below ground level. Along the way, he encountered luminous stained-glass windows, 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. These and many other rare artefacts have inspired Walker’s monumental new photographs, and feature in the exhibition designed by leading British creative, Shona Heath. 

Tim Walker said: “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. 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. 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.” 

Susanna Brown, Curator of Photographs at the V&A, said: “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.” 

About the exhibition 

The exhibition is designed by Shona Heath, Walker’s long-term collaborator. It showcases over 300 items, encompassing photographs and the V&A objects that inspired them, short films, photographic sets and props, scrapbooks and sketches. Heath’s spectacular design guides visitors on a journey through Walker’s enchanted world. Text written by Walker adds personal insight and celebrates 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 exhibition begins with over 100 pictures from Walker’s previous projects and extracts from his Super 8 films, displayed in a sleek, white space. Walker first came to prominence in the 1990s with his unique approach to visual storytelling, blurring fantasy and reality to create pictures that can be surreal, lavish, humorous and touching. These images are populated by some of the biggest names in fashion: models such as Edie Campbell, Lily Cole, Lindsey Wixson and Stella Tennant and designers including Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Comme des Garçons and Rick Owens. Walker’s reference points are disparate, ranging from fairy tales to The Beatles’ lyrics, yet his photographs share a sensibility that is unmistakably his own. He avoids Photoshop and other virtual tools in favour of beautifully crafted physical sets and aweinspiring locations, from Myanmar to Japan and Mexico. 

The first room of the exhibition displays these inventive fashion stories alongside portraits of luminaries such as Sir David Attenborough, Margaret Atwood, Peter Blake and David Hockney, and a constellation of performers including Riz Ahmed, Cate Blanchett, Björk, Timothée Chalamet, Beth Ditto, Daniel Day-Lewis, Claire Foy, Saoirse Ronan and Solange Knowles. One wall is devoted to the photographer’s muses, including performers Tilda Swinton and Lindsay Kemp, models Kristen McMenamy and Kate Moss, and the artist Grayson Perry. The first part of the exhibition concludes with five projects devoted to the nude. 

The main exhibition space contrasts with the brightness of the first gallery to reveal a darker environment, rich with texture, colour and sound. Ten evocative room sets display Walker’s new series of photographs inspired by the V&A. Each set includes a group of V&A objects selected by Walker, displayed alongside the photographs they inspired. Shona Heath makes use of the cavernous exhibition gallery to display elements of the photoshoots’ sets and props at great height. 

The first of these rooms is Illuminations, which evokes the interior of a burned-out cathedral. On display are sixteenth-century stained glass panels and an exquisite illuminated manuscript  made in the 1470s for the Duchess of Brittany. These Renaissance treasures inspired Walker’s pictures, which hang as large-scale framed prints close-by. 

Another room, Pen & 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. 

A further room, 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. As well as famous faces, Walker’s new pictures are populated by a diverse cast of up-and-coming performers and models, celebrating beauty in all its forms. 

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 the latest in the museum’s ambitious series of projects working in collaboration with contemporary practitioners. The exhibition opens just under a year after the launch of Phase One of the V&A Photography Centre, a new space to showcase the museum’s world-class photographic holdings. 

Exhibition Website

Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London