Passport to Wonderland: Tim Walker at the V&A

Tim Walker 'Radhika Nair', Pershore, Worcester, 2018 (c) Tim Walker Studio

‘Go out into the garden and use your imagination!’ Tim Walker’s mother would say, in the face of boredom. Once outside, the little boy would do just that, entering the make-believe of his mind, arranging scenes and taking pictures; an extraordinary life’s work was just beginning. Today that ‘garden’ is the V&A’s archive, from which Walker has picked out ten treasures or ‘wonderful things’ as the inspiration for a series of new projects on display for the first time in this utterly spellbinding show.

Tim Walker’s fashion photography needs no introduction. But, for anyone who needs to be brought up to speed, the first part of the exhibition provides a whistle-stop tour. In a bright, white dream room, highlights from 25 years’ worth of work hang thematically in clusters; Into the Garden with its bloom of flower-filled fashion shoots, past the Alice in Wonderland fairytale sets,  onwards to the photographer’s muses Tilda Swinton, Kate Moss, Grayson Perry, and over to his portraits; David Attenborough with a whopping egg and the iconic shot of Alexander McQueen leaning on a human skull, a year before he died.

Playful pictures are met with playful curation; blink and you’ll miss these three blind mice down at sock-level and hiding beside the leg of a table. Great glossy drips of paint splurge from the ceiling; scrapbooks lie open, and fonts in the picture captions swirl and swoop in different directions. An added bonus; these captions have all been written by Walker himself, so it’s his voice that guides you through the exhibition.

But it’s when darkness descends that we really enter Walker’s wonderland. Starting with a burned-out cathedral, we are drawn through a series of immersive rooms that feel like stepping through film sets of mad invention. In each we meet the V&A objects and artefacts that have formed the springboard for Walker’s new photographs. There’s a modesty plaster fig leaf made in 1857 to cover Michelangelo’s David during Queen Victoria’s museum visits, the launchpad for a whole series of male nudes, and a sky-wall dotted with peep-holes. From ivory Indian chess pieces and a pair of 16th century Krishna and Indra watercolours spring Walker’s shots of billowing silks and glitter-coated faces that float up on Cloud 9 through Worcestershire’s delphinium fields.

Objects from the archive include an Alexander McQueen ballgown, an embroidered casket from 1675, the golden shoes of poet Dame Edith Sitwell, an enormous rolled photograph of the Bayeaux Tapestry, a Book of Common Prayer, stained glass windows and more, resulting in over 150 new photographs. Weaving it all through with magic thread is the design, masterminded by Shona Heath, Walker’s long-term collaborator. Wonderful props and mini-scenes that play with scale, colour and texture ensure we’re not mere on-lookers to Walker’s imagination, but we’re walking around in our own fantasy-land too.

And it is Heath’s final touch at the end of the show that carries you out with a spring in your step, imagination ignited. Walker’s scrapbooks have been blown up to giant scale – we’ve swallowed Alice’s shrinking potion again – and we’re tiny looking up at his words scribbled in pencil above, ‘Ends are always followed by beginnings, something new could start now, right here! There really are so many wonderful things.’

Tim Walker's Wonderful Things
21 September 2019 - 8 March 2020
V&A Cromwell Rd, SW7 2RL
— Daisy Allsup
18th September 2019