Tim Walker: Storyteller, Somerset House, London

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A flying saucer chased by a foxhunt and tables laid for a party and suspended in trees are some of the fashion photographer Tim Walker's more extravagant gestures.

Along with a life-sized aeroplane made of French loaves, and a giant insect playing the cello. It’s a world where magic exists and, though darkness threatens, it is never ugly. Beauty rules here, because it is fashion, after all.

It’s a particularly British aesthetic, an Alice in Wonderland world, where edgier models such as Stella Tennant and Karen Elson lark in the grounds of country houses: a pink dress and roses could not make these girls twee. Like a fairy tale, Walker’s imagination can be creepy - a giant doll kicks a barbed wire fence on which a model is stuck - but it’s never frightening.

Not that all of Walker’s images are elaborate. Quintessentially British celebrities appear: Tilda Swinton wears flying goggles against a cool white background; Alexander McQueen’s only props are two cigarettes, one in his mouth and the other in the mouth of a skull on which he leans; Helena Bonham Carter is dressed as the Queen, sipping a can of coke. Walker’s portraits feel stark as compared to the excesses of his fashion spreads.

Walker has claimed that he’s not interested in taking pictures. He has no nerdy interest in light meters and gadgets, it’s simply about holding the camera up and, click, a perfect image. Like the Vanity Fair photographer Annie Leibovitz, his art lies in his extraordinary ability to create magical sets that capture the imagination, and show off beautiful clothes. His is a truly British arcadia, in which eccentricity is part of the fantasy, like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. He often references fairy tales, the cover image of his Storyteller book, which accompanies the exhibition, shows a model who has cracked Humpty Dumpty in two.

Walker learned his craft in the bowels of Vogue magazine, working on Cecil Beaton’s archive. He went on to assist Richard Avedon in New York. Even though his work is unmistakably contemporary there is nostalgia wthin it, for the leisured class and their rounds of tea parties, rose gardens and fox hunting. So, as the end approaches, why not drink champagne and have one last dance.

To 27 January 2014 (www.somersethouse.org.uk)

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