This month marks 25 years since Derek Jarman's death from AIDS in February 1994. Jarman is best known as a filmmaker, but he was also an accomplished writer, gardener, designer and painter. Although one of the less acknowledged aspects of his work, painting was an activity Jarman pursued throughout his life and looking at his work sheds light on his shifting priorities as an artist.
Jarman first began to paint seriously at boarding school in the 1950s. There he formed a close bond with his art teacher Robin Noscoe. It was through Noscoe that Jarman developed a keen sense of flux between artistic disciplines. Jarman’s appreciation of architecture and his regular incorporation of found objects into his art can also be attributed to Noscoe’s influence.
Jarman planned to study fine art after leaving school, but his father insisted that first he complete a ‘proper’ university degree. So in 1960 Jarman commenced a BA in History, English and History of Art at King’s College London. Around that time he decorated a door for the study in Garden House, Robin Noscoe’s home in Wimborne, Dorset. Jarman embellished the door with a quotation from Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls, a medieval poem he possibly first encountered at King’s.
Chaucer’s text features a dreamer who, falling asleep, is taken by an imaginary guide to a gate adorned on each side with verses. One inscription promises that those who enter will experience bliss and healing while the other inscription augurs only death and sorrow. The passage Jarman selected for the door in Garden House is drawn from the first, more positive message. Just as, after being led through the gate, Chaucer’s dreamer finally finds himself in a glorious garden, Noscoe’s study door was envisaged as a portal to a fertile creative space.
While it might be dismissed as a piece of juvenilia, Jarman’s door for Garden House embodies themes that reverberated across his career. Significantly, the door was itself recycled, removed from a Second World War bomb site, one of a number of architectural and decorative fragments incorporated into Noscoe’s home during its construction. Jarman’s films, diaries and the garden he created in Dungeness were similarly motivated by ecological principles: they provided opportunities to remember and recover the past with a view to its future resonances.
After graduating from King’s in 1963, Jarman took up a place at The Slade School of Fine Art, where he studied painting and stage design. In the theatre design room at The Slade, Jarman discovered a more open attitude to homosexuality. Sexual acts between males were partially decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967, the year Jarman left The Slade. Despite this and a developing sense of the creative freedoms afforded by his identity as a gay man, the artworks Jarman produced and exhibited in the late 1960s and early 1970s tended not to reference his sexuality overtly. Instead, they focused on the nature and experience of landscape.
Building on his experiments at The Slade with spare evocations of desolate terrains such as deserts, plains and beaches, Jarman’s ‘Avebury’ series of paintings, made around the same time as his 1973 Super 8 film Journey to Avebury, divides the canvas into a series of semi-abstracted grids featuring evocations of Avebury’s ancient standing stones. As in the film, which takes viewers on a journey through a series of mostly static shots of the rocks and their surrounding landscape, the paintings gesture to the stones’ mysterious presence.
It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, against the backdrop of the developing AIDS crisis, that Jarman found his voice as a gay rights activist. Open about his HIV status, Jarman campaigned tirelessly against representations of the illness in British media. Many of the paintings produced in his final years, such as works in the ‘Queer’ and ‘Evil Queen’ series, are informed by Jarman’s involvement in HIV/AIDS activism.
Created with the help of a small team of assistants, these densely textured works were often painted on a ground comprised of pages reproduced from tabloid newspapers. The defamatory headlines were obscured by layers of thickly worked paint, before being etched or finger painted with words and slogans.
Sometimes the statements were loosely autobiographical, drawing attention to Jarman’s own illness following his HIV diagnosis. In Ataxia – AIDS is Fun the artist references his reduced eyesight and the fact that, at the time of painting, he was suffering from the neurological condition ataxia.
Jarman’s late paintings convey a palpable sense of anger but are also laced with humour and defiance. These works likewise signal a return to his earlier interests in excavating and recuperating the past. Queer features a word that Jarman played a key role in reclaiming, a pejorative term that nonetheless offers a possible alternative to rigid labels and categories of sexual and gender identity. As Jarman put it in his 1992 memoir At Your Own Risk, ‘For me to use the word 'queer' is a liberation; it was a word that frightened me, but no longer’.
In the same book, Jarman also reflected on how ‘painting was my secret garden… an escape out of Heterosoc.' This aptly expresses Jarman’s investment in painting’s generative and liberatory potential, a site of release from restrictive social norms. It is high time that Jarman’s painted works found a wider audience: they are a crucial missing piece in perceptions of this truly multifaceted artist.
Robert Mills, Professor of Medieval Studies in the History of Art Department at UCL, former director and co-founder of UCL’s LGBTQ+ research network qUCL.