The Prospect for Arcadia:
Tim Walker’s Never-Ending SummerI Love Pictures, March 2007
By Robin Muir
On March 18, 1947 the Vogue photographer Clifford Coffin visited the studio of Lucian Freud to make a portrait of this exciting talent in British art. The twenty-five-year-old painter lived in a sparsely furnished studio in rundown central London, but that didn’t stop him from putting on a show for the man from Vogue. He wore his favourite item of clothing, a Merchant Navy sweater acquired for an abortive trip on a North Atlantic convoy to Nova Scotia. He positioned himself next to a recently completed and unframed painting, The Greek Boy, and presented a treasured possession to the camera: a bird of prey, a sparrowhawk, resting on one gloved hand. Having traded a painting for a German Luger pistol, Freud shot rats for his hawk on the canal near Regents Park. To the delight of his fellow passengers, he also took it on the “Tube”, London’s rattling subway system.
Three copies of this attractive portrait exist. One rests in the archive of British Vogue and another belonged to the late Bruce Bernard (1928 – 2000), an incisive and expressive commentator on photography. He was a schoolboy friend of Freud’s and half a century later, was painted by him. He was close too – insofar as anyone could be – to Francis Bacon. His was a true democratic eye, which often faired the enigmatic, anonymous flea-market find over a great name and the closer a picture came to art, with the more distaste he regarded it. And he liked this portrait because it showed a friend on the cusp of greatness and, significantly, did not aspire to art in the slightest.
The third copy belongs to Tim Walker, who also likes it for the right reasons too, not least because its composition pleases his photographer’s eye. And Freud, it must be said, never looked more striking. John Deakin once said of Freud that he liked photographing him because of his sly looks: “He is such a strange fox-like person..” I think Tim’s pictures of Billy White, his earliest model, which veer towards portraiture as they try to pin down fleeting vulpine looks, are attempts to capture something of the feralness at the heart of human physiognomy (“Dreaming with Wolves” would be the title to a future photo-essay).
This old Vogue picture is a romantic image too, of a lost England, one that could tolerate sparrowhawks on underground trains and one in which your smart clothes were probably your only clothes. Its message is one of eccentricity and defiance, of flamboyance and down-to-earth integrity. But there’s something more in this portrait, which both Bruce Bernard and Tim Walker have responded to: the tension between metropolitan artistic life and the raw freedom of nature and the open air. Freud, who had boarded as a schoolboy in the Devon countryside, allowed in time the sparrowhawk to fly away and with it, perhaps, any further thought of a rural existence. Bernard resolved the dilemma by becoming increasingly urbanized, a dedicated habitué of Soho, the focal point of London’s artistic Bohemia. Francis Bacon tried county life of the Sussex/Hampshire border – and fled back to London within months. As you can see here to great effect, Tim Walker has allowed the quandary to create for him an enviable double life of rus in urbe. He lives in an industrial quarter of East London with little hope for, or glimpse of, greenery, but takes as his mise-en-scène the open spaces of the British landscape from the West Country to Northumberland and further north to the Scottish Highlands. And, when the land cannot immediately present itself, trees, streams, ponds, glades, and entire rustic vignettes can be recreated by artifice.
And pretence, or the creation of fictive worlds, is the stuff of fashion photography and Vogue, the arena in which Tim has chosen to shine. So here then are the truths of that Vogue picture from 1947: It was staged by a German émigré painter, whose accent rendered him only partially intelligible in his adopted country; the hawk was not, strictly speaking, native to the United Kingdom and certainly not to London; the portrait was taken by an American on secondment to England, who did not care about painters or painting (Clifford Coffin cared even less about the British landscape, observed once haranguing the standing stones of Stonehenge for not being bigger). Despite appearances, “Britain” really didn’t participate at all…
An attachment to the idea of what Britain used to be is, I believe, the key to many of Tim Walker’s photographs. And what, in the childhood storybooks of C.S. Lewis, E.H.Nesbitt, T.H. White and Arthur Ransome, it magically meant: loyalty and camaraderie; long golden summers, an unquenchable thirst for adventure and as a backdrop, the constancy of the English landscape. “I liked to walk through the countryside with a camera,” he confided to an interviewer, “and photograph the people I knew. Photography for me was a bit like collecting things. When I had a camera there was always a reason to go somewhere… I started to arrange pictures in my mother’s garden. I just imagined something and tried to build it.” If now beyond a recreation of a childhood he clearly adored, Tim’s photographs derive much of their potency, beauty – and their gentle humour – from eras that are not his own. He is particularly sympathetic to the decrescence of architecture and his fellow humans. Those whom we might term “elderly” twinkle under his scrutiny. Through the heritage of Vogue, he has re-established tangible links to the romantic strain that marked, with their vignettes of English rural life, Norman Parkinson and Cecil Beaton as later-day Gainsboroughs and Zoffanys.
Tim’s precursors are also non-photographic. His episodic narrative fashion stories and use of bold colour looks back to the wartime films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and their romantic attachment to the English landscape (and more than a little too to The Wizard of Oz). But mostly, I think, to the British Neo-Romantic artists of the early 1940’s. They sprang to prominence often self-taught and their paintings as earthy as if ploughed up the land itself. England under threat introduced a strange, hopeful yet somehow forlorn moment in British painting when throbbing nature fused with landscape, when the motif of the plurality of trees and the woodland vista haunted photography too: Bill Brandt’s urban grittiness and Edwin Smith’s bucolic romance. In Vogue, Norman Parkinson maintained that a collective reminiscence of traditional, rural ways of life would be all that could keep the “idea’ of Britain alive in its darkest hour. Cecil Beaton roamed what remained of the British Empire to reassure Vogue’s readers that their quotidian rituals were still mirrored in the farthest reaches: Egypt, India, Ceylon and North Africa. Tim Walker knows Beaton’s wartime work well, for as a younger man, he helped collate Vogue’s collection of Beaton’s negatives. It was surely not coincidence that prompted U.S. Vogue to ask Tim to portray Madonna as chatelaine of Ashcombe, once Beaton’s country house. It’s telling, as he recounted it later, that he got along best with her children, who, having plundered the dressing-up box, instinctively understood the make-believe.
“Being British” for Italian Vogue in 2005 is perhaps the apogee of Tim’s sense of belonging and his response to the notion of a keeping an identify alive in an era that neither cares for it nor needs it (he remains the most unfashionable of fashion photographers). What on earth did an Italian readership make of “Being British”? It is idiosyncratic (there’s an illuminated model of a stately home on the billiard table of the very same stately home). It’s fantastical (in a bed/sitting-room there springs a stream in full spate). It’s surreal (a huntsman and his pack of foxhounds materialize through a torn, large-scale trompe-l’oeil photograph... of a hunting scene). It’s just a little bit peculiar (a practice tennis match took place in a morning room). It’s downright perilous (an iron bedstead and its occupant perch on a signal-red Jaguar Saloon). “I’m just cutting and pasting various British icons together to create a montage of pure Britishness,” Tim explained, “these photographs are rather romantic visions of an England past.”
Such introspection, as the Neo-Romantics proved, happens in times of uncertainty. Well, perhaps, we’re in dark hours now: Spiralling acts of destruction appear commonplace, so too inhumanitarian gestures, the repression of basic human rights, the obliteration of our natural resources, the increasing vagaries of the global climate, and, as one commentator recently put it, “the sickness of our popular media.” Is it any wonder that the brightest among us look backwards? Tim and his collaborators (his photographs are the result of the brute strength and wildly creative minds of many co-conspirators) have an almost pre-mediaeval notion of England as an Arcadia, a lost and rugged Avalon, a pre-lapsarian paradise on earth. I’m always intrigued – and delighted – by Tim’s inclusion of his mothers recipes (she’s a published cookery writer) into a story because the idea of the family group is important to him and vital to an isolationism that still tends to mark out the English. If you have your family around you, you need have nothing else, nor anything to fear. He rhapsodizes particularly about this upbringing in the West Country. You can see it in the photographs and you can watch it as they are being made, for the teams of stylists, set designers and builders he habitually uses are in part an extended family. Jochen Siemens, writing in Stern, was astute in his remark that “[Walker] looks more like his own assistant.”
Blowing up several hundred balloons to decorate a manor house, recreating a patch of forest inside the ballroom of a stately home, persuading the Bedouin to strap on skis or a baker to make dozens of tiny pastries and cream cakes to suspend from a tree, to coax a horse indoors, all of this comes at some kind of price. It is to Vogue’s credit (British, Italian, and Japanese, occasionally American) that they rarely baulk at the price, either financial or in labour intensity. This is Vogue’s checklist of requirements for a thirty-eight page “Fashion Pantomime” in 2005. 80 White rabbits, 20 ballerinas, 17 mirrored geese, 250 ostrich eggs (sprayed gold), a box of giant plastic hands, 20 Christmas trees and a Rolls-Royce. It was cheaper, Vogue discovered, to buy a Rolls-Royce than to hire one especially for the shoot, not least because no-one had yet an idea of what exactly the photographer might do with it. As you can see here, their confidence always pays off.
It is inescapable too, but there is a streak of surrealism in Tim’s pictures – as if you couldn’t guess by the streaks of bacon ascending a model’s legs chased by a spider crab or the torn sheets of paper out of which heads pop unexpectedly through. This is the genial surrealism of Magritte rather than the ambiguous, sexually charged tableaux of Dali. At its most intoxicating, it’s that peculiar British notion of surrealism as slapstick, endless summer fun; Beaton’s era again, perhaps, when those who were lucky enough to have emerged from the Great War unscathed were still ignorant to the storm clouds gathering again.
This is Beaton on his confections for Vogue in the couldn’t-care-a-fig thirties: “My pictures became more and more rococo and surrealist,” he commented years later, “Society woman as well as mannequins were photographed in the most flamboyant poses, in ecstatic or mystical states, sometimes with the melodramatic air of a Lady Macbeth caught up in a cocoon of tulle… ladies of the upper crust were to be seen in Vogue fighting their way out of a hat box or breaking through a huge sheet of white paper. Backgrounds were equally exaggerated and often tasteless…” From streamers to balloons to giant fishhooks, the parallels with Tim Walker are obvious. Not the tastelessness, of course, but at least the ladies of the upper crust, as Stella Tennant and sundry Guinnesses, can be found performing or contorting in Tim’s equally flamboyant creations. They are also to be found in his scrapbooks, some of which are on show here. They mirror those kept by Beaton too. Tim’s mostly function as practical aide-memoire to future photographic work, collections of ephemera, which in time perhaps he and Vogue will find a way of making happen. For Beaton, on the other hand, to make these albums of magazine cuttings and newspaper scraps had much to do with an early twentieth-century attitude to time and memory, transience and loss. And further into the twenty-first, as they begin to fade, perhaps Tim’s torn-out pictures will have a similar resonance.
I looked again at “Timeless”, one of Tim’s customarily extensive fashion stories for Italian Vogue, arguably his greatest patron. It is a pastiche on the world of haute couture and the haut monde, but without any hint of malice of sarcasm (Tim could not be cruel if he tried). Models lie between facsimile life-size pages of the magazine; they step out of the cover, they play with the individual letters of Vogue, as famous a logo as there can be, and amid all the fun, the spotlight, that perennial signifier of the fashion photographer at work, becomes literally part of the picture. This reminded me, inevitably, of a portrait of Cecil Beaton made by Paul Tanqueray. Beaton had worked for Tanqueray at the outset of his photographic career. He had gone back several years later for a portrait sitting. Tanqueray was a relic of the late Edwardian era but with modernist tendencies and Edwardian Britain was something from which Beaton wanted desperately to escape but could not – the scrapbooks kept calling him back. Tanqueray affixed to Beaton dozens of portraits of his young sitter, almost subsuming him in silver gelatin-ed paper. “As he sat there under the hot lights,” the late Stuart Morgan told us, "his mind a blank, Beaton became Fashion. Or Photography. Or maybe both at once." If Tim Walker did not exist, like Beaton all those years ago and like Voltaire’s God, it would be necessary to invent him. If only to reassure ourselves and those that might follow him in the fashion world, that decent people really do make it to the top and with their hopes and dreams intact. Indeed, even more than intact – with a self-resolve that ensures that hare-brained, utterly impossible ideas spring into life. How could you fail to respond to a young man whose calling card many years ago now, as recalled by Robin Derrick, British Vogue’s Creative Director, was “a portfolio full of pictures of fairies at the bottom of his garden?” As storm clouds now gather around all of us, those that have watched his work mature – while he thankfully refuses to – are delighted to continue failing to fail to respond.