Somerset House has been transformed into a veritable fairyland, a surreal world belonging to the magical stylings of Tim Walker. Walker has always been fascinated by the make-believe since as a 19-year old intern at Vogue he established their Cecil Beaton Archive. After completing his studies at the age of 25 he shot his first Vogue fashion story; the rest, as they say, is history. He was the recipient of the second ‘Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator’ at the British Fashion Awards in 2008 and the following year he received an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in New York. His photos are instantly recognisable including many famous fashion campaigns such as those of Mulberry (who are supporting the exhibition), Hèrmes and Valentino.
Tim Walker, Giant doll kicks Lindsey Wixson, Eglingham Hall, Northumberland, 2011. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.
The extravagant and dazzling exhibition seeks to replicate the photos. The first room contains a life-sized Spitfire, a prop used for a 2009 Burberry shoot for Vogue starring Lily Donaldson. Here, it has crashed and erupted through the fireplace. There’s no slow start. This is Walker – take it or leave it.
Tim Walker, Lily Donaldson and Blue Spitfire, Glemham Hall, Suffolk, 2009. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.
The exhibition guides us through Walker’s collaborations with some of the biggest names in contemporary fashion and culture: Alber Elbaz sporting a pair of rabbit ears (fairy tales are frequently referenced); Karen Elson up against it with a giant crocodile; Agyness Deyn in the sand dunes of Namibia; Tilda Swinton in Iceland; Alexander McQueen and a memento mori of skull and cigarettes; Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton turning an Essex garden centre into a danse macabre; Stella Tennant in a pink cloud among the rhododendrons of an English country garden and a visitor from outer space who surprises a foxhunt in Northumberland. Some of the scenes are a bit bizarre to say the least but they are not scary – in fact they are mesmerising. Walker’s images are characteristically British – from the models and design to the background.
Tim Walker, Stella Tennant and pink powder cloud, Eglingham Hall, Northumberland, 2007. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.
As with the Spitfire, props from the photographs are brought into the gallery. I, for one, love bringing props into exhibitions and so they were onto a winner here with me but, when busy, this can make the display seem cluttered. In particular, the room with the giant swan is very difficult to navigate especially as all the cold skaters from the Somerset House ice rink are migrating inside, seeking warmth from anywhere, even an art gallery. The wall labels are also quite amateurish and some are even peeling off – a shame considering how the rest of the show has been thought out. The wall labels and quotes are printed on corners making you move with them – the photos aren’t straightforward and the display follows this. Despite these flaws this is a really fabulous show where the new East Wing at Somerset House has truly found its feet .
Skaters at Somerset House. Image via www.bbc.co.uk.
In this exhibition, we are transported to Walker’s world where his imagination comes alive. And what a world it is! Walker shoots entirely in film – for him, the easy part is pointing and shooting and the camera ‘is simply a box put between you and what you want to capture’. The magic, and his genius, lies in the designs of these amazing sets that show off his models and all their couture finery. The team involved here includes hair and make-up artists, fashion stylists, costume fitters, model makers, set designers, builders, producers, painters, prop suppliers and models with Walker at the centre waving his magic wand.
Tim Walker, Olga Shearer on blue horse, Sennowe Park, Norfolk, 2007. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.
Somewhat surprisingly, Walker’s preference when looking at this show is his portraits, favouring the stripped back contrast of the faces to his previous flamboyance. He feels it’s time for something new but I find it very hard to believe he’s going to leave all this behind. Who knows? Let’s see.
Tim Walker, Alexander McQueen with skull and cigarettes, Clerkenwell, London, 2009. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.
Looking at Walker’s photographs feels as if we are somewhere else, in his own surreal land. The soft focus, framing devices and clever lighting enhances this. It is, in fact, the experience of viewing the photograph that stays with us longer than some of the specific images. The works are an incredible cross between fashion, theatre, design and art. They don’t have to come down in one place as they encapsulate all these things; and they encapsulate them faultlessly.
And so it was time for me to journey to my own winter wonderland and don some skates at the Tower of London to be whisked away once more, this time onto the ice.
Tim Walker: Story Teller is at Somerset House until 27th January 2013, www.somersethouse.org.uk.