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Derek Jarman: a beginner's guide

Everything you need to know about the renaissance man

Derek Jarman ('Caravaggio', 1986)
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'Caravaggio', 1986

Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, published by Thames & Hudson. Artwork © 2013 The Estate of Derek Jarman

 (Portrait of Derek Jarman)
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Portrait of Derek Jarman

© Ray Dean

Derek Jarman
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Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, published by Thames & Hudson. Artwork © 2013 The Estate of Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman (The Garden, 1990. © Mike Laye, courtesy BFI)
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The Garden, 1990. © Mike Laye, courtesy BFI

Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, published by Thames & Hudson. Artwork © 2013 The Estate of Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman
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Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, published by Thames & Hudson. Artwork © 2013 The Estate of Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman
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Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, published by Thames & Hudson. Artwork © 2013 The Estate of Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman
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Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, published by Thames & Hudson. Artwork © 2013 The Estate of Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman
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Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, published by Thames & Hudson. Artwork © 2013 The Estate of Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman
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Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, published by Thames & Hudson. Artwork © 2013 The Estate of Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman
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Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, published by Thames & Hudson. Artwork © 2013 The Estate of Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman
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Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, published by Thames & Hudson. Artwork © 2013 The Estate of Derek Jarman

 (Portrait of Derek Jarman)
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Portrait of Derek Jarman

© Ray Dean

Derek Jarman
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Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, published by Thames & Hudson. Artwork © 2013 The Estate of Derek Jarman


Filmmaker, gay activist, painter, gardener… It’s hard to know where to start with Derek Jarman. As a year-long celebration of his work marking the 20th anniversary of his death kicks off with ‘Pandemonium’, a show of Super-8s and notebooks at King’s College London, we round up key facts about the renaissance man.

He loved London
Jarman beachcombed along the Thames. He filmed in London and lived for pennies (thems were the days) in vast warehouses along the Thames. It was here – eat your heart out Cara Delevingne! – he put on some of the best all-night parties ever seen in London. New Year's Eve 1969 found him dancing in his warehouse. Fashion designer Ossie Clark rolled joints in the hallway. By midnight the party spilled out into the street. Tennessee Williams arrived at 1am in a limo. The police, believing royalty was in the house, kept guard.

He discovered Tilda Swinton
The year was 1985. She was an unknown 24-year-old actress not long graduated from Cambridge University. He was an underground director casting a new film, 'Caravaggio'. It was artistic love at first sight. She called it running away to join a circus, and for nine years they were a gang: 'It was about rebelling,' says Swinton. 'It was about finding your universe.'

He liked a row
Jarman wasn't some isolated arty type hidden away making films. 'He was a proper tabloid figure in the '80s, involved in constant argy bargy,' Tilda Swinton says. With a sod-'em attitude, he gleefully went into battle for what he believed in – famously criticising Ian McKellen for accepting a knighthood from the homophobic Conservative government in 1991. Heroically brave, Jarman told the world he was HIV positive in 1986 – at a time when stigma of Aids was so rampant the police wore rubber gloves at gay demos.

He created one of the most celebrated gardens in England
In 1989, living with HIV, Derek Jarman bought a fisherman's cottage on the shingle beach in Dungeness, Kent. With two nuclear power stations for neighbours, the place has an edge-of-the-world beauty. A garden was impossible, Jarman thought, with no soil and salt winds. But bit by bit he planted hardy lavender and poppies, assembled driftwood sculptures. Today, on a sunny day you can spot a cute mix of National Trust welly brigaders and cool kids on the beach in Dungeness.

His influence is everywhere
Truth be told, no-one much watches Derek Jarman films anymore. But his pick-up-a-camera, film-your-friends spirit is alive and well and living in every art school student in Deptford putting on a pop-up or making an art video.

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