‘Pandemonium’ and the 20th anniversary of Derek Jarman’s passing

Biographer of Derek Jarman

On the 19th of February, it will have been 20 years since Derek Jarman died, at age 52, of HIV-related causes. To mark the occasion, a range of activities have been planned in the UK, kicking off with Derek Jarman: Pandemonium, an exhibition at King’s College, London, where Jarman took his first degree before going on to study fine art at the Slade.

Writing in the London Evening Standard in the week before Pandemonium opened, the art critic Brian Sewell opined harshly: ‘This may be the last Jarman anniversary to be recognised: 2042 will mark the centenary of his birth and 2044 the half-centenary of his death — and by then, mourners who knew him will be very few indeed, such works of art as have survived will be mere curiosities, at best his films will be judged quaint, and Prospect Cottage [where Jarman lived toward the end of his life] will have been swept away by the effects of global warming or nuclear disaster. Thus, by all means, let his pursuivants, paramours and parasites make Pandemonium now, for there will be no other opportunity.’

Is Sewell right to be so damning about Jarman’s artistic achievements? And what about Jarman as an activist? What of Jarman the man? (Though Sewell is less harsh about the man, as it happens, allowing that he was ‘witty, kind, generous, determined, heroic’.) Or, last but not least, what of Jarman the writer, for he was prolific in this sphere too, as evidenced by the many titles of his still in print here.

Happily, Pandemonium provides a thoughtful, perceptive and beautifully designed glimpse of both the man and the artist. The exhibition comprises just four rooms – the so called Inigo Rooms – off a corridor displaying some of Jarman’s art with, at the far end, a view of the garden he created in his final years at Prospect Cottage. One room centers on his time at King’s – a shelf of books that were important to Jarman, some copies of Lucifer, the student magazine of which he was arts editor. Another on Bankside and his studios across the river, where he lived in the seventies. There’s even a darkish back room where The Last of England, filmed in the months before Jarman learned he was HIV-positive, is being run at staggered intervals on five separate screens.

With much, much more to come as the year progresses.

There will be other exhibitions; talks; a number of screenings, including a wide-ranging retrospective at the BFI, a showing of Andy Kimpton-Nye’s documentary and a Neil Bartlett installation based around The Angelic Conversation in King’s College Chapel on the night of Jarman’s birthday. There’ll be trips in the summer to Prospect Cottage and before that, on the 19th February itself, an event in the London Review Bookshop to celebrate the publication of a facsimile edition of Jarman’s poetry collection, A Finger in the Fishes Mouth.

Will any of this change Brian Sewell’s opinion? Probably not. But if you don’t know Jarman’s work yourself, or you’d like to reacquaint yourself with it, or learn more about it, then 2014 offers a fine opportunity for you to make up your own mind.

More information at www.jarman2014.org.

Derek Jarman: Pandemonium runs from Jan. 23rd through March 9, 2014.


Tony Peake is the author of Derek Jarman: A Biography. He has also published two novels and also a writer of short stories. He was a friend to Derek Jarman and continues to serve as literary agent for his estate. For more information, visit tonypeake.com.

“That Jarman lived and died on the cutting edge of contemporary culture is central to the thesis of Tony Peake’s monumentally well researched and fittingly respectful biography of this multifaceted personality. Peake . . . is his subject’s perfect biographer.” —The Times (London)

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