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Pages from Derek Jarman's sketchbook
1985, ‘Caravaggio [3]’, taken from Derek Jarman's SketchbooksPublished by Thames & Hudson

Inside Derek Jarman

Curator Mark Turner shows us around his intimate Somerset House show about the iconic polymath

Derek Jarman took London as his canvas, upon which he painted and projected images rich in histories of the world, histories of the universe. His journey on the Thames began when he enrolled at King’s College London in 1960. With the new retrospective Derek Jarman: Pandemonium, curator Mark Turner has a presented a beautiful understanding of Jarman’s world, taking a close look at his formative years spent at King’s from 1960-63 and introduces us to the polymath’s extensive practice as painter, filmmaker, set designer, diarist, poet, gardener and activist.

A pioneer in warehouse living, he travelled along the Thames residing at Bankside and later Butler’s Wharf using his surroundings as sets, championing communities that co-existed in a post swinging 60s London. The people who came and went walked on and off his set, the high-camp lifestyle bringing wonderful guests to the party in a pre-gentrified London. This flamboyant lifestyle was inspirational in Jarman’s world yet we see how social unrest in the late 70s to early 80s began to seep in – Thatcher’s England. The activist takes over; protest and manifestos from the creative community after a fire destroys their waterside idyll, many moving to Bow to form what we now know as The Chisenhale Art Place.

Dazed Digital: Can you talk me through Jarman's reading library whilst at King’s – what was on his mind?

Mark Turner: Jarman studied Humanities here, when he joined he already had a knowledge and keen interest of Egyptology and a love of Shakespeare which we later see in The Angelic Coversations and The Tempest. He hated his time at boarding school but was lucky to have had a wonderful art teacher. His reading material included medieval occultist Dr John Dee, esoteric historian Frances Yates and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, taking from these rich histories new ideas that would fill his mind until his final days. He tried throughout his life to make a film of William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman but it was remained unresolved. It’s a very complicated text that I still teach now.

DD: You’ve produced a booklet to compliment the exhibition, bringing together text from Jarman’s extensive collection of diaries. This passage really defines his love of the authors he was discovering during his time here: “I began to read between the lines of history. The hunt was on for forebears who validated my existence. Was Western civilization queer? The renaissance certainly was…”

Mark Turner: I really wanted to highlight Jarman’s love of words, he approached the art of writing in such a wonderful manor. He would take to his desk with his sketchbooks and fountain pen set out before him, to create this beautiful handwriting. For him it was another ritual, an act. 

Dazed Digital: It feels as though the exhibition stays true to Jarman with a subtle installation that allows the works to shine: vitrines in triangular and semi-circle forms that create simple lines and shapes. How did you approach this?

Mark Turner: We worked with designers Martin McGrath and Sam Ashby (Authors of Little Joe, a magazine with a focus on queer cinema) playing with the symbolism that Jarman would have found in The Hieroglyphic Monad. These symbols, created by John Dee in 1564, are used as reoccurring motifs within the show. They represent different things at different times, the sun and moon, yin and yang, water and fire.

DD: Death Dance is the first of Jarman’s mesmeric Super 8 films in the show, and you can immediately see Jarman’s love of architecture: A grassy wasteland in London, a temple-like pavilion in an urban site and in the foreground beautiful naked boys being lured to their death.

Mark Turner: Even through he made this film ten years later I wanted to position it at the beginning, opposite the books from which he took inspiration. It’s a medieval death dance, a danse macabre full of ritual and symbolism. He shot it in a plot of land at Butler’s Wharf where he was living and of course in this instance the figures being called to death are beautiful men that were often around!

DD: I’ve long been entranced by his Super 8 films, their otherworldliness, layers of colour and textures drifting across the screen. 

Mark Turner: He was so proactive at making things happen, he worked hard and at that time Super 8 film was so cheap. He was not precious and could work fast. He would screen these films with different music, playing whatever was around at the time from “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” to medieval chanting. Sometimes people would arrive at the studio faced with this loud and chaotic chanting bellowing out. I wanted to show the importance of music for Jarman by including a playlist for visitors to listen to at random whilst in the exhibition.

DD: Jarman’s Prospect Cottage in Dungeness is renowned, but I’m also noticing the foliage and riverside shrubs from his Thames balcony in Studio Bankside, his 1970 poetic offering of life in pre-punk London.

Mark Turner: Jarman always had a wonderful way of always keeping the garden near and I wanted to recognize that and keep it within the show, Studio Bankside is one of his most well known Super 8 films but I felt it was important to include it even though many people have seen it. It documents life at that time for him showing a London we can hardly recognize now, life on The Thames has changed so much, the view of London has changed, much more than say New York has.

Pandemonium is open at the Inigo Rooms at King's Cultural Institute at Somerset House until 9 March. Derek Jarman's Sketchbooks are published by Thames & Hudson, RRP £28.