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Jarman, Derek (1942-1994)  

In both his films and his writings, Derek Jarman's explicit project was to celebrate gay sexuality and imagine a place for it in English culture.

Jarman was born in Northwood, England, into a middle-class, Royal Air Force family, and his early life was spent on military bases and at public school. At his father's insistence, he took a degree at King's College, London, before going to art school. Arriving at the Slade in 1963, he found an exciting milieu, including openly gay artists such as David Hockney and Patrick Procktor, and he showed his paintings in several exhibitions. During this period, he enjoyed to the full the sexual and artistic freedoms of the 1960s in London.

With the acquisition of a Super 8 camera in 1970, Jarman began recording the details of his own life and discovered the autobiographical subject that was to become the driving force of all of his subsequent films and books. His creative work always criss-crossed the boundaries of established artistic media: painting, filming, writing, gay activism, and even gardening all reinforced one another to form part of an increasingly explicit project to celebrate gay sexuality and imagine a place for it in English culture.

He began his career as a painter and stage designer, including designing the sets for Ken Russell's film The Devils (1971). His own first feature film Sebastiane (1975) became an unexpected hit due to its open and helped inspire the growing gay liberation movement.

In Dancing Ledge (1984), Jarman began writing autobiography that combined material from his own life with a sense of English history and the mythic past. In 1986, he discovered he was HIV-positive and decided to make that knowledge public: Without intending to, he was to become an exemplar of living creatively with AIDS.

Modern Nature (1992) is his most substantial literary achievement. It records in journal form his life in London and Dungeness (where he owned a cottage by the sea), his friends, his film projects, his past life, his present reading and thinking, and his efforts to see his garden flourish on the exposed, rocky beach.

In the next book, At Your Own Risk (1992), the awareness of AIDS is greater, and so is the anger and sexual frankness. politics informs his struggles against disease and against the persistent of his society. These books precisely evoke English cultural life over a thirty-year period.

From canonical literary texts, Jarman made brilliantly reimagined versions of Shakespeare's The Tempest (1979) and Marlowe's Edward II (1991). The Tempest is full of spectacle and wit. Edward II modernizes Marlowe's analysis of sex and politics to apply it to contemporary England and to expose the centuries-long oppression of homosexuals by the English ruling class. The books that came out of the making of particular films stand as significant works in their own right.

His last film, Blue (1993), shows a pure blue screen with a complex soundtrack of music, sounds, and words (some from Jarman's own hospital notes) to represent the approach of blindness. Jarman said the screen was blue because you can't see the virus. In the grim atmosphere of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jarman became a fierce fighter for--and celebrator of--queer sexuality.

[See also Leland Wheeler's reminiscence of his friendship with Derek Jarman, in which he discusses Jarman's films and activism.]

Lawrence Normand


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Derek Jarman's cottage and garden by the sea in Dungeness, Kent.
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Jarman, Derek. Dancing Ledge. Shaun Allen, ed. London: Quartet, 1984. 2nd. ed. 1991.

_____. The Last of England. David L Hirst, ed. London: Constable, 1987.

_____. Caravaggio. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.

_____. Modern Nature: The Journals of Derek Jarman. London: Century, 1991.

_____. At Your Own Risk: A Saint's Testament. Michael Christie, ed. London: Hutchinson, 1992.

_____. Queer Edward II. London: British Film Institute Publications, 1991.

_____. Chroma: A Meditation on the Nature of Colour. London: Century, 1994.

Lippard, Chris, ed. By Angels Driven: The Films of Derek Jarman. Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

MacCabe, Colin. Obituary of Derek Jarman. The Independent (London), February 21, 1994. p. 14.

Wheeler, Leland. "Imaging Derek Jarman: A Friendship in the Age of AIDS." (May 1, 2013):

Wollen, Roger, ed. Derek Jarman: A Portrait. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.


    Citation Information
    Author: Normand, Lawrence  
    Entry Title: Jarman, Derek  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated April 30, 2013  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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