Carved into the Portland stone of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s dramatically decorative facade, just to the left of the arched Cromwell Road entrance, is a sign that reads, simply, INSPIRATION. It’s a fitting—if understated—description of the sprawling London cultural institution, which houses more than 2.3 million artworks and assorted other treasures spanning 5,000 years of human history. And for the photographer Tim Walker—whose largest solo show ever opens at the museum on September 21—that unofficial motto rings particularly true. “It’s funny, I hadn’t noticed that sign until very recently, but for me it’s spot-on,” says Walker, who has visited the museum on countless occasions, dating back to childhood outings during which he became enamored of a 19th-century Japanese tea set, designed specifically for preparing tea under the light of the full moon. “The V&A,” says Walker, “has sparked my imagination all of my life.”
And now more than ever. “Tim Walker: Wonderful Things,” which runs through March 8, 2020, is, as Walker puts it, a “response” to the V&A’s dizzyingly extensive holdings. The photographer—whose new monograph, Shoot for the Moon, is out in October from Thames & Hudson—spent the better part of three years exploring the museum’s lofty galleries and combing through its vast archives. After the near-impossible task of narrowing down his myriad obsessions, he produced 10 photo shoots informed by his chosen objects.
A tiny 18th-century snuff box, inlaid with a scene of a child walking a pet baby dragon through a mysteriously glowing garden at night, gave rise to an eerily iridescent portfolio shot entirely under a blacklight. A trove of Dame Edith Sitwell’s gems led to a shoot that ran in W featuring the actress Tilda Swinton, a frequent collaborator of Walker’s, channeling the famed English eccentric: ghostly pale, beturbaned, and dripping with jewels. And—in an example of a less immediately recognizable interpretation—an embroidered tapestry–covered box made by an 11-year-old girl in the 17th century led him to focus on a 19-year-old male model from the North of England who transforms himself, after hours, into an extraordinarily beautiful woman. “What so touched me about this box was that, when you open it, you find this secret world that the girl created by candlelight, a private dreamland, and that got me thinking about the fact that we all harbor hidden fantasies and alternate realities inside of us.”
For Walker, immersing himself in the archives of the V&A was, in itself, a fantasy made real. “I felt so incredibly educated by the experience,” he says of the many hours he spent exploring the museum, uncovering curiosities like a pair of Elizabethan gloves; a 19th-century, more than 200-foot-long, hand-colored, actual-size photograph of the Bayeux Tapestry; and a 16th-century smock in which, Walker says, some unlucky soul had been murdered, complete with knife slashes and 500-year-old bloodstains.
Walker’s deep dive into the V&A included a thorough exploration of the building itself. On one excursion, he hiked across the museum’s seven-acre roof, getting up close and personal with the four beehives that produce the museum’s own brand of honey. Another day, he descended into the labyrinthine Victorian cellar. “You had to put on a miner’s hat, because sometimes the corridors shrunk, shrunk, shrunk, shrunk down and you had to actually crawl through a tiny door!” he says, delighted by the arcane strangeness of it all. “It was very Alice in Wonderland.”
The same has often been said of Walker’s pictures. Known for his sumptuously surreal fashion photographs, he spins fantastical narratives inhabited by supermodel mermaids, twisted fairy-tale cottages, and couture gowns accessorized with pastel-dyed Persian cats, airplanes that appear to be made of bread, and other figments of his impossibly active imagination. Beautiful and bizarre, the work is somehow both instantly recognizable and impossible to pin down. “Tim is constantly challenging himself to do something new,” says Susanna Brown, who curated the show after originating the concept with Walker over a cup of tea in 2015.
Brown’s mandate, says Walker, was not only to produce a slew of work in dialogue with the V&A’s collection but also to present museumgoers with “a novel way of looking at photographs.” To that end, Walker and Shona Heath, who designs the elaborate, often impossible-seeming sets for his photo shoots (Walker strenuously avoids falling back on digital trickery, which means that, for instance, if he wants to depict a tea party suspended in a forest, the table must actually hang from the trees), constructed 10 separate environments inside the gallery, one to house each of the shoots alongside the object or objects that sparked them. Heath dreamed up a burned cathedral to hold a pair of 16th-century stained glass windows and the images that evolved from them. Photos informed by Indian miniatures occupy a black velvet cube. And another grouping lives inside a replica of a pink 1980s suburban house, complete with a garden.
The printing was yet another opportunity to play with expectations. The photos inspired by the pearly snuff box are on mirrored panels, in an attempt to capture the box’s glowing quality. Some images are placed under small glass domes, and one section of the show is printed on huge sheets of metal. “That idea came from a car crash that Shona got in,” says Walker. “She couldn’t stop taking pictures of the dented metal because she thought it was so beautiful and interesting.”
A few years ago, Brown invited Walker and Heath to check out the exhibition space while it was temporarily empty between shows, so they could get the lay of the land. Walker stepped into the cavernous, nearly 5,400-square-foot gallery and, he remembers, was utterly terrified. “I looked around at the space and thought, There is just no way I can fill a room of this scale with pictures that I’d ever be happy with. It can’t happen.” Now, as the show is set to open, he can say with conviction, “We’ve actually run out of space. We’re like virulent ivy, overflowing the pot. I really can’t believe it.” He is, in fact, the only one who is surprised.