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Photography & media

'Wheeling-out a butterfly': Derek Jarman's Stetchbooks

— July 2014

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

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Double page spread from Derek Jarman's Sketchbooks

Jarman's studies in English, history and history of art at King's College influenced his work for stage and screen

Derek Jarman's Stetchbooks edited by Stephen Farthing and Ed Webb-Ingall

Amidst discussion of recent moves of gallery artists to feature films (partly prompted by BAFTA acclaim for Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave), two exhibitions earlier this year served as a reminder  that this is not a novel phenomenon: Isaac Julien's seven-screen installation, Playtime, and single-screen Kapital, at Victoria Miro, and ‘Pandemonium’, at Somerset House, devoted to the late Derek Jarman. Julien also curated the 2008 exhibition of Jarman's work at the Serpentine, ‘Derek’.

Unsurprisingly, given the academic affiliations of ‘Pandemonium’s curators, this show emphasized the influence of Jarman's studies in English, history and history of art at King's College on his subsequent work for stage and in small and large-format filmmaking (as designer, for Ken Russell's 1971 The Devils, and as a director) and political activism (with a nod to gardening and to his concern for calligraphy, incidentally shared with BAFTA-winning contemporary artist filmmaker Peter Greenaway). Jarman's reading of Shakespeare's sonnets and Frances A. Yates’ work (The Art of Memory and Theatre of the World) are recognized in The Tempest (1979) and The Last of England (1987). ‘Derek’ was as concerned with Jarman's paintings (often collaged with explicitly naked male bodies) and in Derek Jarman's Stetchbook, Jarman's previous training at the Slade School of Fine Art is acknowledged by the book's editors to be as important as his studies in the humanities.

The reader is duly prompted to regard the sketchbooks as works of art in themselves, rather than simply preparatory exercises, aides-memoires (including polaroids of near- naked men and photocopies of men's headshots or the scripts' summoning of 'naked boys') and depositories of momentoes (including flattened sprigs of Jarman's favourite mimosa) and lavish calligraphy. The majority of the marbled-covered, deckle-edged sketchbooks featured, comment the editors, were bulkily bought in Italy then customized with gold covers (as this book’s blank opening pages approximate) and embellished with distinctive cartouches and souvenirs (a shell, a metal fly, a lump of bronze subsequently discarded).

The Sketchbooks' illustrations are annotated by Keith Collins, Jarman's partner and ultimate carer:

Derek often visualized an entire movie in minute detail before an actor was cast or a shot was taken; he would have been happiest if he could have projected his imaginings onto the raw celluloid, then move on.

Additional commentaryis provided by friends and frequent collaborators on Jarman's various ventures (singer Toyah Wilcox, cast for Jubilee and The Tempest, submits an anecdotal contribution; Andrew Logan and Neil Tennant appropriately remind the reader that Jarman was not a lone voice in the wilderness in his support of 'alternative culture' in the 1970s and gay rights in the 1980s, referencing an active gay club scene). Jarman's pop videos were a route to feature film production that has since assisted the careers of Guy Ritchie and Jonathan Glazer. Jubilee cast future new-Romantic poster boy Adam Ant and Jordan, from the Westwood/McLaren King's Road shop, SEX (the promo for enormously successful entrepreneurial enterprises and franchises).

Jarman migrated from 'home' movie super-8 to films largely shot in what was then his wharf studio home (Jubilee) and from inclusion of his parents' home movies (in War Requiem) to larger-scale production. His collaborators, Tilda Swinton and the designer, Sandy Powell migrated from small-budget art-house film to mainstream postings; Ian Charleson will remain better remembered for Chariots of Fire ( 1981) than for Jubilee. Howard Sooley's informed remarks on Jarman's Prospect Cottage garden at Dungeness are to be appreciated.

TheSketchbooks stands as witness to Jarman's experimental recordings of projected grainy, 'amateur' 8mm film onto VHS, producing a texture which Collins finds ‘subtle’ and soulful. The book also serves as a reminder of the debt due by Jarman to more experienced professionals employed on the feature films, enabling him to project ‘his imaginings’, notably, cinematographers and the production designer, Christopher Hobbs, who praises Jarman's mastery of still life, and his sketchbook collage of ‘remembered textures, shadows, sounds and clothing’. Of his stunning work on Caravaggio (1987), a speculative bio-pic of a painter, Hobbs comments on the production process:

There was only one painting, The Lute Player,vital to the action. Less is more. One of the joys of filmmaking is that the close-up of an inkwell can hold the dramatic impact of a mountain. This means that by using bare sets and rich detail we could save money without losing quality. The objects on del Monte's desk seen in close-up and beautifully lit look magnificent, though the inkwell was part of an old street lamp and the 'bronze' Greek krater vase was cast iron.

Professional expertise served Jarman equally well on his anachronistic adaptation of Marlowe's Edward II (1991). Jarman's homage to Yves Klein, Blue, may be as familiar from the BBC R3 stereophonic broadcast version as from television and cinema distribution.

The actor Tilda Swinton (from her experience of seven films with Jarman) forewords the Sketchbooks with an appropriate comment on Jarman’s sketchbooks as 'the seed beds' and 'generators' of his activity. The contributors are unanimous in their commemorative admiration and love of Derek. Yet I felt the want of more critical appraisal and analysis of Jarman's work – and of his legacy.

Derek Jarman's Stetchbooks  edited by Stephen Farthing and Ed Webb-Ingall is published by Thames and Hudson 2013.256p.p., 196 illus, £28.00  ISBN: 978-0-500-51694-2


Amy Sargeant
Tisch School of the Arts, NYU
Art historian

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