The actress Tilda Swinton is arguably the greatest chameleon of her generation—a woman who, despite her striking looks and almost regal presence, can remake herself, as she has for various films, into an old man, a glamorous fashion editor, a genderless angel, or a snowy white witch, with almost eerie seamlessness. Some of Swinton’s most shocking shapeshifting, however, has had nothing to do with the movies. Over the past few years, Swinton and the photographer Tim Walker have channeled an ever-growing cast of intriguing historical figures—the collector and philanthropist Dominique de Menil, the artist Leonora Carrington, the poet and patron Edward James, the all-around genius David Bowie—in a gorgeously surreal series of photographs for W.
Their most recent muse, the subject of the images seen here, holds special significance. Dame Edith Sitwell, born in 1887, was not only a poet, critic, and famous eccentric, she was Swinton’s cousin and, as an 8-year-old, the flower girl in Swinton’s paternal great-grandmother Elsie’s wedding. In fact, it was Elsie, a celebrated chanteuse once painted by John Singer Sargent, whom Sitwell credited with first introducing her to the world of art. “I have been aware of the Sitwells all my life,” Swinton says of Edith and her younger brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, who were also writers. “As significant examples of artists to whom I can claim kin, I’ve always treasured them.”
The idea of “walking down the avenue” of Dame Edith, as Walker puts it, was something the creative collaborators had been knocking around for some time. Walker, a self-described “mega fan” of Cecil Beaton, had long been fascinated by the photographer’s well-known portraits of Sitwell, one of which made it onto the cover of a Morrissey tour book in the 1990s. “A friend of mine had a T-shirt with that cover on it, and I used to love it,” he remembers. “I was always fascinated by the uniqueness of Sitwell’s beauty.”
They saw their chance to finally explore that singular aesthetic when Walker happened upon a trove of Sitwell’s famously ornate and oversize baubles while exploring the archives of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, where he was doing research for a show of photographs that will open there next year. “I saw exactly what they could do in terms of pictures,” he says. In the end, Walker and Swinton weren’t allowed to borrow the actual gems—“even though Tilda Swinton is a famous film star and a blood relation of the original owner,” Walker points out—but they were confident they could use contemporary pieces to “articulate the mood of Edith.”
At first, Walker toyed with the idea of commissioning a prosthetic version of Sitwell’s famous nose, a defining feature so prominent and beaky that her parents forced her to wear a strapped-on truss in an attempt to correct it. But ultimately, says Walker, resorting to a faux proboscis “ended up feeling too much like using a sledgehammer to crack the nut. We decided it was more exciting instead to go to Renishaw, the house where the Sitwells grew up.”
Renishaw Hall, in Derbyshire, near Sheffield, is a sprawling, nearly four-centuries-old manse complete with crenellated parapets and surrounded by famously sublime gardens. (The bicycle-wheel-size white poppies seen in these photographs are, believe it or not, real.) Despite that stunning setting, however, Edith’s childhood was by all accounts miserable. Born with a curved spine and what Swinton describes as “the head of a greyhound,” young Edith was forced to wear not only the corrective nose apparatus but a cagelike iron corset. Her parents were, at turns, absent and cruel. Her mother, Lady Ida, who, to add insult to injury, was considered a great beauty, was also a wicked-tempered alcoholic who eventually served time in prison for fraud. Edith once recounted being sent to pawn her mother’s false teeth in order to buy her brandy. Five years separated Edith from Osbert, and Sacheverell didn’t come along until half a decade after that. “Until my brothers were born, my only companions were birds,” she said in an interview for the BBC show Face to Face, on which she appeared in 1959, clad in her signature mufti of doorknob-size rings, conversation-starting headgear, and drawn-on brows.
Somehow—no doubt in large part due to the attentions of their governess, Helen Rootham, with whom Edith lived until she was 50, when Rootham died—the three Sitwell children not only survived but emerged with literary talent intact. Separately and as a group, they published anthologies, wrote novels, and penned criticism on the subjects of art, architecture, and music. Edith’s most ambitious undertaking was a series of poems called “Façade,” which she began publishing in 1918 and later transformed into a fantastically bizarre performance in which she hid behind a curtain, like some sort of turban-bedecked Oz, shouting what have been described as “nonsense verses” into a Sengerphone (a megaphone made of compressed grass) while an orchestra played a medley of sea shanties.
Whether Sitwell ranks as an important 20th-century poet is a matter of some debate. Thanks in no small part to her gender and noble birth—not to mention her fashion choices—her work has at various times been written off as nothing more than an attention-seeking vanity project. Swinton disagrees, calling her “a truly extraordinary poet,” and, in recent years, several respected critics have made similar arguments. But whatever one thinks of her verse, her influence can’t be denied. During her lifetime, she was photographed and painted by any number of artists, and more than half a century after her death she remains a cultural touchstone for oddballs everywhere. And who, when it comes down to it, isn’t, in some way, an oddball? “She took what she had and wore it with so much pride,” Walker says. “That body positivity is a very, very powerful thing. I’ve been a photographer for two decades, and I’ve watched such a change in ideas about beauty and individuality, particularly recently. We’re learning to celebrate our differences, and it’s nothing short of thrilling. Edith was a champion and initial cheerleader of that spirit way back when.”