PRINT May 1994


THE DEATH OF DEREK JARMAN robs us not only of one of cinema’s most imaginative postwar independent directors but of one of Britain’s proudest and most indefatigably queer gay men. With the late Angela Carter, Jarman was the greatest poetic visionary of Britain’s Thatcher era. He captured with unerring accuracy the sense of inexorably developing corruption and cruelty that since the late ’70s has increasingly characterized everyday life here.

Derek was a cornucopia of gifts, talents, skills, enthusiasms, and mysteries. A man of the early 1960s, he was always (sometimes touchingly) committed to the idea of a grand transhistorical sequence of homosexuals, from Plato onward by way of Michelangelo, Wilde, and so on. At the same time, his life had been transformed by the punk movement of the mid ’70s, which he wholeheartedly embraced. He was also an erudite antiquarian, a wonderful companion for, say, visiting old churches: as a student, he himself had been shown round most of the City of London churches by Sir John Betjeman, poet laureate and canonizer of a certain traditional vision of English life, whom he revered. Not for nothing did Jarman name his darkest film The Last of England (1987), after Ford Madox Brown’s Pre-Raphaelite painting, which is concerned, as Derek was, with the pain of exile.

He grew up during and in the shadow of World War II, and his underlying vision of life was always somber, Goya-esque. The sky is rarely a safe place in his films. Yet there was also a Derek Jarman whose tastes lay with the traditions and conventions of the pastoral—with Gainsborough. He had studied painting at the Slade, and in 1967 his work had been exhibited in the Tate Gallery’s “Young Contemporaries” exhibition. Then he had moved on to a successful career as a set designer, working, for example, on Sir Frederick Ashton’s 1968 ballet Jazz Calendar and on Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils. It was only in the mid ’70s that he reinvented himself as a filmmaker.

Derek was a complete original, inspired simultaneously by Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger, by Pasolini and arte povera. A constant was his own peculiar Englishness. What was so rare about him was his sense of dissident national identity: he belonged to the England of the Elizabethan philosopher/astrologer John Dee, of the 17th-century diarist and antiquarian John Evelyn and the mystic and medical man Sir Thomas Browne, and of the metaphysical poets—John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan. As a younger friend of his remarked recently, he was never deeply involved in gay politics until they caught up with him. But in the latter part of his life he was deeply committed, working, for example, with the direct-action group Outrage from its beginnings, early in 1990 in London. He became the best-known out gay man in Britain, and the most articulate spokesman for people living with HIV.

One of the most moving aspects of Derek’s response to the virus was his immediate return to painting, in 1986. As he explained to me a couple of years ago, “I left painting behind at the moment painting left itself behind because it became conceptual and all sorts of other things. . . . I’ve seemed to come in where I left off.”1 His large, late graffiti paintings, done on and largely obliterating the silk-screened front pages of British tabloid newspapers screaming with homophobic hatred and anxiety, are a kind of defiant reply to British bigotry and puritan zeal. His anger at government complacency and institutional homophobia was articulate, effective, and courageous.

Jarman lived through several virtual deaths and resurrections in the course of his illness. When I visited him in hospital in June 1990, though barely alive he could talk only of England’s melancholy lack of what he described as a “dignified” sense of its own cultural history—always greedy for the new, hopelessly and tragically ignorant of its own real achievements and history. Derek straddled Englishness, from the Knights Templars to the Pet Shop Boys. It was wholly appropriate that his funeral service took place at the Norman parish church of St. Nicholas in New Romney, not far from his celebrated seaside garden on the bleak Kent coast at Dungeness. In 1888, when the church’s vicar was threatening to “restore” St. Nicholas more or less out of recognizable existence, its preservation had been the first victory for William Morris’ recently founded Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Indeed, Derek might well be thought of as a kind of Queer William Morris for the ’90s.

In 1991 he had said, “I want to be part of the final alteration in the laws on homosexuality and I want to tend my garden.”2 In early February this year he made the decision to come off all his medical treatments; at the time, the House of Commons was preparing to vote on a bill proposing a lowering of the age of consent for gay men, from 21 to 16. Jarman had campaigned passionately for this bill, and had said that he was living on only to see it passed. On the morning of February 21, however, The Times and other newspapers were put in the position of carrying front-page stories about both the age-of-consent vote, to take place later that day, and Derek’s death. In the event, a dishonorable compromise—a lowering to 18 instead of 16—was passed. The U.S. has already witnessed the extraordinary symbolism of “political funerals,” in which the ashes of people with AIDS are thrown onto the lawns of the White House, at their request, to protest ongoing government neglect. Derek’s was a self-consciously political death.

I sometimes went to exhibitions with Derek over the years, and we once visited the National Gallery together to see a Holbein portrait, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, that had recently been acquired for the sum of £10 million, to outraged protest from The Daily Telegraph and other papers. It is a marvelous painting, showing a rather plain Englishwoman, seated, with a red nose, as though she had a cold. On one arm perches a squirrel, Holbein’s casual acknowledgment of the challenge posed by Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an ermine. “Ten million pounds!” said Derek, beginning to wave his arms around enthusiastically: “Ten million pounds! What’s that? That’s a tank!” (This was during the Gulf War.) “It’s just one loop of a motorway flyover! There are thousands of bloody tanks! Thousands of bloody flyovers! This is unique. It’s worth a hundred million!”

Always struggling to scrape together the money for his next film, always immensely generous to others, Derek himself was without peer or price. He is survived by his partner, Keith Collins, and by his extensive body of work, including eight books and some ten feature films, from Sebastiane, 1976, the spoken text of which is in Latin, through a remarkable 1979 version of The Tempest, through Caravaggio, 1986, Edward II, 1991, to Blue, 1993. This last, made while Jarman was losing his sight to AIDS, comprises a complex autobiographical soundtrack—discussing both HIV/AIDS treatment issues and Jarman’s life as an artist and gay activist—and a single, unchanging, Yves Klein–blue image on screen.

As writer and performer Neil Bartlett wrote in a birthday message earlier this year, “Some people make being gay more of a pleasure. Some people reinvent what being gay might mean. Thank you Derek.” In Derek’s favorite Soho café, the Maison Bertaux, a little shrine has been set up for him, with fairy lights and a few already fading newspaper photos. That is what true cultural belonging means.

Simon Watney is director of the Red Hot AIDS Charitable Trust.


1. Derek Jarman, quoted in Simon Watney, “Derek Jarman: Rewriting History,” in Derek Jarman: Queer, exhibition catalogue, Manchester: Manchester City Art Galleries, 1992, n. p.

2. Jarman, quoted in Minty Clinch, “Positive Direction,” The Observer Magazine, London, 13 October 1991, p. 63.