Derek Jarman assumed many personas in his lifetime - artist, filmmaker, painter, set designer, writer and poet. He was particularly fascinated by the possibilities of cinema and made more than 15 films including Jubilee (1978), Caravaggio (1986) and The Last of England (1987). Jarman's work openly celebrated male sexuality at a time when misleading media coverage of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s created widespread fear and paranoia.
Lesser known but equally compelling is his work as a diarist. Jarman wrote Modern Nature, between 1989 and 1990, which focuses on the garden he lovingly created at Prospect Cottage, Dungeness. Having discovered he was HIV positive in 1986, Jarman found refuge in nurturing life in his garden, perhaps mitigating the feeling of having lost control over his own future. Standing in the shadow of a nuclear reactor, the cottage is humble in scale but decorated imaginatively by Jarman with objects found on the coast. He describes how his love for nature was first kindled at an early age when his parents gifted him a copy of Beautiful Flowers and How to Grow Them. Filled with pages of watercolour illustrations, Jarman recalls how ‘they held me spellbound on many a rainy day.”
As shadows close in, the landscape turns grey; the sky has sucked up all its colour.
Every experiment in cultivation is pragmatically noted down and meditated upon. The eccentric beauty of Jarman’s garden reveals itself in the juxtaposition of the celebrated and overlooked, the exotic and mundane. The soil is stubbornly infertile and the weather inclement; but Jarman welcomes the challenge of coaxing life from the barren land and delights in the unexpected beauty that emerges amidst the shingle. Large oblong pieces of flint ‘like dragon’s teeth’ are added to flower beds filled with poppy, camomile and calendula; while luscious swathes of sea kale flourish alongside smooth pebbles arranged in concentric circles. Jarman observes that they assume the role of ‘primitive sundials’. He evocatively describes the weather and changeable skies noting, “There’s a menacing sunset beyond the nuclear power station: livid yellows and inky blacks with a deep scarlet gash. As shadows close in, the landscape turns grey; the sky has sucked up all its colour.” Jarman’s garden acts as his source of constant inspiration with its inherent optimism and promise of rebirth; a microcosm of his universe.
Jarman’s encyclopedic knowledge and passion for botany is revealed in the lists of Latin plant names that occasionally dominate entire paragraphs of his diary. His vivid descriptions are joyful even for those apathetic to gardening: botanical nomenclature satisfyingly roll off the tongue like a ritual chant. Rhythms of his daily life are recorded in sometimes short but poignant entries: a simple meal of porridge prepared on the stove, a disruptive visit from ‘Mr. Crow’, the sound of rain lashing against the rickety windows of the cottage. Jarman effortlessly evokes the mood of ‘Ness’, his affection for Dungeness always evident in the sparse, poetic lines. In one entry he describes, “A cold, grey, windy day. Compose the poems as the rain blows in. As the day draws to a close the sun floods the Ness, wet shingle scintillates.”
Like the change of a season, Jarman deftly records a feeling of oscillating between the warm embrace of maternal figures and the imposing glare of his military father. Accounts of his time in boarding school recount the early sexual experiences that shape his early identity and give him a taste of freedom. He reflects on his sexuality, his peers’ struggles with AIDS and describes his efforts to support the cause through his activism. Jarman notes, “For the ‘experts’ my sexuality is a confusion. All received information should make us inverts sad. But before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.’ One by one, Jarman loses friends to the illness and this news is noted in brief mentions throughout the diary, although he rarely lingers on the pain. At this point, death has become a normality and people fade from view. In April 1989 after speaking to a friend close to death, Jarman writes sadly, “Emotions frozen for fear of filling the world with tears.”
At times, the landscape shifts as Jarman describes trips back to London for editing sessions, attempts to secure funding and the cycle of press junkets and interviews he endures. Jarman’s output is prolific through these years, always in the midst of production, whether creating music videos for Pet Shop Boys or shooting films on the beaches of Dungeness with his friend and muse Tilda Swinton. Trips to London bring a welcome diversion as he recounts moments of escape in the form of lively Soho nights and unexpected conquests in Hampstead Heath. He enjoys the excitement and warm of old friendships but you also sense the relief he feels on his return to Dungeness, where he feels most comfortable and at peace.
London life also creeps into his coastal idyll with visits from friends bearing news and fresh energy as they bundle Jarman into their cars for long drives along the coast. These parallel lives intersect in his films, his home serving as the backdrop. Jarman’s country idyll turned topsy turvy with actors, costumes and cameras. Jarman describes weeks spent shooting beautiful and scantily-clad boys armed with surreal props on the local beach as his bemused neighbours look on with intrigue.
As the diary enters its second half, it assumes a more sombre tone. Jarman falls ill; spending sleepless nights at the mercy of feverish and often horrifying hallucinations. A protracted hospital stay in 1990 leaves his fragile body in the hands of strangers. Jarman recounts these dark days with brutal honesty, leaving no raw detail behind, yet emerges from the darkness revealing a lightness of spirit and hidden tenacity. In the autumn of 1989 as the first signs of an infection emerge, he says “The two days have passed in a delirium. The violation of the house, the chaos and extreme fatigue leave me lurching backwards and forwards. I feel as tangled as the sheets which move through the hurricane of my dreams.” He notes with great appreciation, the small acts of love from those around him including his long-term partner Keith Collins. Referred to as HB, the ‘Hinney Beast’ looks after him with tenderness, leaving Jarman with a feeling of serene peace: “Spent a blissful evening with HB who helped me through my sweat, and then bathed me. All the touching gave me strength.”
Modern Nature is heartbreakingly personal yet universally understood in its exploration of the complexity of human nature. It embodies in technicolour the irreverence and fearlessness Jarman brought to his life and art. Nothing symbolises the hope he held onto in the face of uncertainty more than the garden he left behind. It stands as a poignant and celebratory reminder of Jarman’s tenacious spirit. As he so perfectly summarises: “The day of our death is sealed up. I do not wish to die… yet. I would love to see my garden through several summers”.
Jarman: A Celebration
An evening of celebrating the iconoclastic artist, Derek Jarman.
Discussion from writer Olivia Laing and artist Neil Bartlett on how Jarman influenced their work.
Location: Tate Britain
Entry: £12 (book tickets above)