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Boundaries are the horizon: The queer art and activism of Derek Jarman

Posted on 24 Jan 2020

In 2020, the Art Fund's crowd-funding campaign successfully saved Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage. Here, we revisit the boundless energy of his art, film, activism — and gardening.

Image: Prospect Cottage © Howard Sooley

Derek Jarman refused to live, work, or die quietly. A prolific artist and activist, he defined the bohemian sixties in London, blazed into the queer punk scene of the 1970s, and went on to wield his colossal creativity and pride against the stigma and fear of the AIDS epidemic.

The scale and interdisciplinary breadth of his work was extraordinary. At the time of his death from AIDS-related illness in 1994, Jarman had produced eleven feature films; ten books; hundreds of paintings; dozens of experimental shorts; music videos with the likes of Bob Geldof, Patti Smith, and Marianne Faithful; several set designs – and a fantastical garden.

He had come a long way from the repression and harshness of his formative years. With his RAF pilot father and prep school education, Jarman spent a “frightened and confused” childhood marked by itinerancy, absent affection, and secret sexuality.

It was at art school in London that he came out, and made his initial forays as a painter. Later, during a stint in New York, he was introduced to handheld filmmaking by Andy Warhol and went on to make several experimental Super 8mm shorts.

In 1976, he released his first full-length feature film, Sebastiane, portraying the life and martyrdom of Saint Sebastian with unapologetic homoeroticism and a dialogue exclusively in Latin.

Later films were equally daring. The cult hit Jubilee (1978), starring a number of punk rockers, had Queen Elizabeth I transported through time to a barren 1970s wasteland. War Requiem (1989) synthesized Benjamin Britten’s choral work of the same name with Wilfred Owen poetry, and the last screen performance of Laurence Olivier.

Blue, released in 1993, by when AIDS complications had left him partially blind, showed 75 minutes of a luminous blue screen, over which Jarman and some of his long-time collaborators narrated his vision and life.


Image: Prospect Cottage © Howard Sooley

Much of his work was a manifesto for open homosexuality, from the golden phalluses gleaming through his “Black Paintings” to his 1985 movie The Angelic Conversation, which combined homoerotic images with Shakespeare sonnets. Describing the film, Jarman spoke of “a dream world, a world of magic and ritual, yet there are images there of the burning cars and radar systems, which remind you there is a price to be paid in order to gain this dream in the face of a world of violence.”

After he was diagnosed as HIV+ in 1986, Jarman was one of the first public figures in the UK to speak openly about living with the disease, tirelessly confronting the homophobia of the tabloid press. In his defiant series of “Slogan Paintings”, he overpainted lurid tabloid headlines about the “gay plague” with his own titles: “Queer”, “Morphine”, “To Have & to Hold, For Richer for Poorer, In Sickness & in Health”.

He was a prominent member of the queer rights direct action group OutRage! and spoke passionately at the 1988 inaugural AIDS and Human Rights conference, demanding a fundamental shift away from indifference, scapegoating, and denial towards education, prevention, treatment, and support.

It was following his diagnosis that Jarman also moved to Prospect Cottage, a fisherman’s house at Dungeness on the Kent coast, which he had bought on impulse using an inheritance from his father. A vernacular timber style cottage, the place sits on a desolate headland, bleached by the sun, battered by winter winds, and with a nuclear power plant as its neighbor.

But it was here, in this harsh, surreal expanse of sky and shingle, that Jarman decided to create a garden. Roaming the indigenous flora, he became expert in salt-loving plants. He created flower beds out of upstanding flint stones and conjured little dioramas out of found objects and flotsam. He trawled garden centres and nurseries and planted sea kale, poppies, and marigolds in the gravel.


Image: Prospect Cottage © Howard Sooley

A vivid garden journal, later published as Modern Nature, charted his horticultural adventures, interspersed with excursions on his childhood, life, art, politics, and sex.

All this, despite the near certain death sentence that was an HIV diagnosis at that time. Despite the loss of so many of his friends, and the trauma of seeing, and hearing, them fade out of his life. In April 1989, he recorded in his diary a telephone call with the New York film-maker Howard Brookner, who had by then lost the power of speech. It was, he wrote, 20 minutes of “low wounded moaning”.

In its strange and desolate landscape, the garden was infused with that grief and fragility. “You can’t take life for granted in Dungeness”, remarked the photographer Howard Sooley, a close friend of Jarman and regular visitor to Prospect Cottage. “Every bloom that flowers through the shingle is a miracle, a triumph of nature. Derek knew this more than anyone.”

But the garden at Dungeness, like so much of Jarman’s work, was also a statement of boundless imagination. It was an ingenious, colourful marvel – with no fence.

“It is hard to express how bleak and frightening those years were,” recalls the writer Olivia Laing. “Jarman was a testament, blazing, blatant, to possibility.”

A new book on the artist will be published this April. Derek Jarman: Protest! covers all aspects of Jarman’s oeuvre, featuring excerpts from his own writings, previously unseen images from his personal archive, and contributions from Olivia Laing, Norman Rosenthal, Peter Tatchell, among others.


Words by Eliza Apperly

Derek Jarman's Garden

Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman Super 8

James Mackay Out of stock

Derek Jarman's Sketchbooks

Stephen Farthing, Ed Webb-Ingall Out of stock

Derek Jarman's Sketchbooks (Deluxe Edition)

Stephen Farthing, Ed Webb-Ingall