Tilda Swinton Channels Her Ancestors in a John Singer Sargent-Inspired Fashion Fantasy

In the Art Institute of Chicago, there’s a portrait by the Edwardian artist John Singer Sargent of an extraordinarily commanding woman. She stands very upright, one hand on a pink silk armchair, the other on her hip. Her lips are full, her red hair is loosely piled up, and light ripples from a peach and silver wrap. The more closely you look, the more this compelling figure appears to dissolve into loose brushstrokes, a zigzagging tracery of creamy pink and soft smoky gray.

This is the mezzo-soprano and society hostess Mrs. George Swinton, known as Elsie, and the great-grandmother of the actor Tilda Swinton. Elsie was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where Swinton would later film scenes for Sally Potter’s 1992 epic, Orlando. Though Elsie’s position in society prevented her from becoming a professional opera singer, she was described by the composer Ethel Smyth in 1940 as “my favourite vocalist.” She hosted a salon in London with the composer Gabriel Fauré and was painted by Walter Sickert as well as Singer Sargent.

When Swinton was growing up in rural isolation in 1970s Scotland, two Sargent drawings of this glamorous forebear hung behind the television, eyebrows raised in distinctly saucy challenge, an antidote to the conventional entertainment on the screen below. “She was my North Star,” Swinton remembered. “The self-possession she represented, the glamour of her independence, just lit me up and anchored me down.”

The power of this particular North Star never dimmed. Elsie is the presiding spirit for Swinton’s latest collaboration for W with the photographer Tim Walker and the creative director Jerry Stafford. For the past 12 years, the trio has been meeting around the world for inventive shoots inspired by films and artists, drawing on a deep well of shared obsessions that run from female Surrealists such as Lee Miller and Leonora Carrington to the poet Edith Sitwell (who, as a child, had been Elsie’s bridesmaid) to Nicolas Roeg’s alien masterpiece, The Man Who Fell to Earth. “It’s always characters for Tilda to draw on,” Walker explained in his studio, in East London. They’ve traveled together to Iceland; to the Menil Collection, in Houston; and to Las Pozas, Edward James’s idiosyncratic sculpture garden in the rainforest in Mexico.

Dress uniform of an officer of the Archers, the Monarch’s bodyguard in Scotland, property of the Swinton family; Loewe pants; medallion (on shoulder) from Costume Studio, London; John Lobb shoes.

Alexander McQueen gown; Maison Margiela shoes; stylist’s own gloves.

Christopher John Rogers top and ball skirt; stylist’s own necklace and gloves; Sands Films parasol.

Chanel dress; stylist’s own gloves.

The latest project came much closer to home. In the damp dog days of summer, Walker, Swinton, and a close knot of collaborators went to a country house in Scotland. They used the walled gardens as a magically sleepy backdrop for imaginary scenes that riff on Swinton’s family history. In the greenhouses and vegetable beds, they created a gallery of figures who could have stepped straight from a Sargent painting, trailing stoles, their stockings gleaming.

Sargent’s portraits had long fascinated Swinton. She was drawn to the intensity of his sitters’ self-presentation, their capacity to look back fiercely at the viewer in a way that half conceals the precarity of their position, at the edge of a century and a whole way of life. “The level of dignity—however hard-won—and, with it, a sense of representing a community of people living similar, extinction-threatened lives at a time that must have been vibrating with tension and defiant self-definition: This moves and intrigues me deeply,” said Swinton. She and Walker quickly moved away from precise art-historical reproduction, slipping instead into “a sort of instinctive detective trail on the scent of atmosphere, attitude, and experience—and, as is almost always the most interesting, the unsaid.”

Schiaparelli dress; Sermoneta Gloves gloves.

Alberta Ferretti jacket and skirt.

Jean Paul Gaultier Couture by Julien Dossena coat; hat from Costume Studio, London.

In previous shoots, Swinton had been alone or accompanied by friends, but this time the cast list included her two children, twins Xavier and Honor, now 25. In a meadow starred with oxeye daisies, Swinton and Honor manifest long-dead ancestors, sprawling amid a summery litter of discarded books and parasols, the last gasp of the 19th century trapped by the camera’s fish-eye gaze. Swinton resurfaces in the guise of a heavily rouged dowager, brandishing a freshly dug beetroot and peering beadily through a beekeeper veil. Xavier, meanwhile, dons his great-great-grandfather’s heraldic uniform as Lord Lyon King of Arms.

The project was intensely personal, a way for Swinton and her children to reckon with their ancestors by temporarily embodying them. As an actor, Swinton has always possessed an uncanny ability to shift age and gender, her pale face subtly reassembling itself in a multiplicity of forms. Call it the Orlando trick, birthed while she was playing Virginia Woolf’s gender-fluid hero/heroine and refined ever since, though never in such an intimate context. Here she embodies male as well as female members of her family tree, reincarnating as mustached old generals, fey artists, and decaying society beauties swathed in layers of pearly fabric so no inch of unpowdered skin could be seen.

Elsie was by no means the only long-dead relative to have been part of Swinton’s daily life in childhood, gazing from paintings and looking back from mirrors. “My brothers and I grew up shoulder to shoulder with related ghosts and their earthly remnants. Our ancestors were a special part of the playground of our lives,” she said. Her father would casually leave old family diaries at the end of the dining room table after breakfast, in case any of his four children were interested. When she was 16, Swinton came across one written by a teenage female ancestor 100 years earlier.

Swinton’s own uniform jacket and belt; Loewe pants and shoes; Falke socks.

Richard Quinn dress; Falke tights; Chanel shoes; stylist’s own gloves.

Movement artist Jonathon Luke Baker queers John Singer Sargent’s male nudes in Tim Walker’s London studio.

Swinton and her son, Xavier Swinton Byrne (left), wear ceremonial uniforms of the Lord Lyon King of Arms, property of the Swinton household; Timothy Gibbons breeches; stylist’s own turtlenecks and tights. Swinton wears Bode shoes; cane from Costume Studio, London. Swinton Byrne wears shoes from the property of the Swinton household.

Louis Vuitton dress; Sermoneta Gloves gloves; Sands Films parasol.

Swinton became “absorbed in her account of any number of repeated days: ‘Took the trap into the village (two and a half miles away). Played croquet with George. Papa read Ivanhoe. Finished my sampler.’ ” It came at a time in Swinton’s life when she was developing a powerful vision of her own very different future, one that would include art-making and travel, and especially “finding the nourishing companionship of an unrelated tribe of my own full-strength, moon-age daydreaming.”

The diary was a warning of sorts: Don’t get trapped. Elsie, meanwhile, offered encouragement to seek a wider and wilder life. “She was maybe my first experience of the company of artists, the universe of fellowship I was looking for, the kinship of vagabonds and freaks,” said Swinton. “That she was present through all those somewhat desultory moments in school holidays, when I was so open and searching for renegade kinship, meant more than I can say.”

Xavier Swinton Byrne wears a ceremonial uniform of the Lord Lyon King of Arms, property of the Swinton household; stylist’s own turtleneck.

The escape hatch she longed for was opened by the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman, a liberatory figure for a whole generation of vagabonds and freaks. They met in 1985, when Swinton answered a casting call for his film Caravaggio. Jarman welcomed her into his flat on Charing Cross Road with his camera already rolling. From that moment on, Swinton found a parallel and lifelong home in the anarchic world of queer art-making.

Jarman was the ringmaster of a strange circus, and his skills of experimentation and play continue to inform Swinton’s work today. One of several long-term collaborators on this shoot was the costume designer Sandy Powell, whom Swinton first met when they both worked on Caravaggio. Despite her Hollywood credentials, Powell is a master of the shoestring illusion. Witness the Edwardian belle posing, modestly gloved and veiled, in an empty polytunnel, its curved plastic roof admitting a wash of cool gray light. What looks like historically accurate costume, composed of acres of white tulle perhaps found in a trunk in a family attic, is constructed entirely from assorted sheets of plastic.

One of the most compelling images shows Swinton as a soldier, lying on the earth in what appears to be a glass coffin. It’s a melancholy update on her 1995 installation, The Maybe, in which she lay in limbo in a glass case for seven days—though, in this instance, the coffin turns out to be a discarded cold frame, used for protecting plants from the weather. Surrounded by heaps of tiger lilies, this anguished figure in his greatcoat looks like a rural memorial to the fallen. There’s intense contrast between the ceremonial heft of military wear, with its shining gold buttons and elaborate frogging, and the sober, troubled human inside, clutching a cap with bony, aging hands.

Bottega Veneta dress and shoes; Sean Barrett hat; Falke tights; stylist’s own gloves.

Custom dress by Sandy Powell; hat from Angels Costumes, London; costume designer’s own belt and gloves.

Bode coat, pants, and shoes; vintage blouse from private collection of Bode; Falke socks; Swinton’s own hat.

Swinton wears a blouse and hat from Angels Costumes, London; Sands Films petticoat and parasol; Pavilion Parade shoes; costume designer’s own gloves. Swinton’s daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, wears a blouse, petticoat, and hat from Angels Costumes, London; costume designer’s own gloves and parasol.

Louis Vuitton dress and boots; Sermoneta Gloves gloves; Sands Films parasol (in hand); costume designer’s own white parasol.

Though the mood on the shoot was decidedly merry, Swinton and her children experienced an uncanny sense of being inhabited by “certain emotions and attitudes outside of our conscious choice” while the photographs were taken. When Swinton saw the image of the soldier in the glass case, she immediately recognized her late father, who’d served as major general in the Household Division and lost a leg during World War II. It had unveiled something at once familiar and unacknowledged: “a deep mourning and loneliness, the dignity of service dispatched, and the humility of taking his place, at last, in the long line of the no longer upright,” she said.

The final image in the series shows Swinton as a crone, her face wizened as an old apple, her bearing regal. Her dress is naggingly familiar: sea blue, sea green, tight-bodiced, and falling into flounces. It’s one of Powell’s costumes from Orlando, worn at the moment when Orlando discovers she’s been officially identified as female and so has lost her inheritance, along with what Swinton emphatically described as “all her independent social agency.” “It was the last picture we did, just before the light went,” Walker added, though this doesn’t quite explain the figure’s portentous mood.

Daniel W. Fletcher shirt; Loewe pants; Albertus Swanepoel custom bow; Falke socks; Bode shoes; Swinton’s own hat.

Swinton wears a ceremonial uniform of the Lord Lyon King of Arms, property of the Swinton household; stylist’s own turtleneck.

ChenPeng gown; Sands Films parasol; stylist’s own gloves.

Custom dress by Sandy Powell; hat from Angels Costumes, London.

Inheritance can be a heavy burden. We all come trailing ghosts. If a novel as fluid and encompassing as Woolf’s Orlando can be boiled down to a single message, it’s about how to dance to the music of time, how to discard the stubborn and sometimes deforming weight of the past and step instead into the ecstatic uncertainty of the present. Something of this weird magic seems to have accompanied Swinton’s own dance with time.

“For my children and me,” she said, “this stepping into and moving through shapes made by our ancestors has been peculiarly cathartic and empowering.” Stepping back was a way to step forward, a liberating move in a complicated gavotte. She hopes so, anyway. “The tracing of past iterations and inhabitations has, maybe, offered us to the present, having had the opportunity to be somehow exorcised and integrated, and, with our fingers crossed, capable of representing evolution.”

Custom costume by Sandy Powell from the movie Orlando.

Hair by Malcolm Edwards at LGA Management; makeup by Sam Bryant for Chanel Beauty at Bryant Artists. Creative consultant to Tilda Swinton: Jerry Stafford. Model: Jonathon Luke Baker at Chapter Management. Set design by Miguel Bento at CLM.

Produced by Truro Productions; Producer: Susannah Phillips; Production Manager: Kate Edmunds; Photo Assistant: Antonio Perricone; Printing: Graeme Bulcraig at Touch Digital; Fashion Assistant: Philip Smith; Costume Design Assistant: Timothy Gibbons; Hair Assistant: Karen Bradshaw; Prop Assistant: Kasia Stefania Tabecka; Production Assistants: Spyro Kotsiftas, Tom Williams, Ben Spellman; Tailor: Alina Gencaite; Casting director for Jonathon Luke Baker: Madeleine Østlie at AAMØ Casting; Executive Assistant to Tilda Swinton: Angus John MacLellaN; Assistant to Angus MacLellan: Katy Young; Assistant to Tilda Swinton: Lewis Watson; Location Manager: Xavier Swinton Byrne; Production Support: Honor Swinton Byrne; Location Manager Assistant: Danny Watson; Location Fixers: Jill Wild, Tammy Fowley, Seumas MacLellan.

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