Derek Jarman: The Gardener

‘Returning to Modern Nature recently I was astounded to see how thoroughly my adult life was founded in its pages. It was here I developed a sense of what it meant to be an artist, to be political, even how to plant a garden (playfully, stubbornly, ignoring boundaries, collaborating freely)… Building a garden was Jarman’s characteristically energetic, fruitful response to the despair of what was, pre-combination therapy, a near certain death sentence. It was a stake in the future, and it led him deep into remembrance of the past, too.’ Olivia Laing

After discovering he was HIV positive Derek Jarman decided to make a garden at his cottage on the barren coast of Dungeness. Modern Nature is his journal of that time – a diary of the seasons as he battles to grow his garden and a meditation on Jarman’s life and past. 

If you haven’t been introduced to the genius of Derek Jarman yet, this is the place to begin, as he delves into his green-fingered childhood, his time as a young gay man in the 1960s, and his renowned career as an artist, writer and film-maker. At the heart of Jarman’s journal is his defiant spirit and almost renaissance-like fervour for the world around him. It is at once a lament for a lost generation, an unabashed celebration of gay sexuality, and a devotion to all that is living.


Derek Jarman: The Activist

‘Just 25 years after its partial decriminalisation, amidst the emergence of a terrifying new disease that predominantly, in the West, affected gay men, with religious, political and social damnation swirling, to write about being a gay man, let alone one who was HIV positive, was truly groundbreaking. It is hard to quantify how radical this book was and not just as a defence of gayness, but as an angry and unapologetic celebration of it.’ Matthew Todd

Derek Jarman was one of the first public figures to be openly HIV positive in Britain. He had always been openly queer in his work but, after being diagnosed, he took on a leading role as a campaigner against the prejudice that proliferated in Britain as HIV/AIDS, along with huge amounts of misinformation, began to spread. 

In At Your Own Risk, Jarman pulls no punches – this is a furious, unforgiving attack on the insidious and often explicit homophobia that permeated British society, from the government to the media to ordinary people on the street. He exposes unpalatable truths about how LGBT people were targeted during these years, as well as offering an unrepentant affirmation of gay mens’ right to life, love and sex. It’s a short, sharp shock of a book. 


Derek Jarman: The Artist

‘Who has not gazed in wonder at the snaky shimmer of petrol patterns on a puddle, thrown a stone into them and watched the colours emerge out of the ripplies, or marvelled at the bright rainbow arcing momentarily in a burst of sunlight against the dark storm clouds?’ Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman is remembered first and foremost as a film-maker and artist, although his creativity extended beyond those mediums until his life seem to be the embodiment of one long creative endeavour. Chroma is his most poetic and lyrical book, and in it he explores the use of colour in art, medieval paintings through the modernists, and in doing so draws on the great colour theorists from Pliny to Leonardo.

As ever, Jarman’s writing is interwoven with memories from his illustrious career and early life, along with reflections of his deteriorating health. Chroma was written a year before Jarman’s death and his eyesight was ailing at the time. It is an intensely personal work; a paean to colour from an artist seeking to memorialise its centrality to all aspects of his life.


Derek Jarman: The Diarist

‘As well as being a portrait of their author’s life and times these last journals also function as that true rarity amongst literary artefacts, a properly detailed account of what it actually feels like to love and live with another man… Many narratives from those terrible years of the plague are accounts of defeat; this one, surely, is a richly detailed account of a triumph.’ Neil Bartlett

In his final set of journals, Jarman details the facts of his daily life: from shooting new films, to clearing his bee hive, to attending AIDS activism meetings and increasingly frequent hospital appointments. Derek was determined to make the most of the time he had left, surrounded by scores of friends and his unwaveringly devoted partner, H.B. Smiling in Slow Motion is unique as one of the most comprehensive personal accounts we have of what it was like to live with HIV/AIDS when proper treatment was yet to emerge, but these painful details are offset, always, by Jarman’s witty, impassioned and vital prose.


Olivia Laing and Neil Bartlett will be in conversation at Tate Britain for a celebration of Derek Jarman’s life on the anniversary of his death, 19 February 2019.

Related articles

We use cookies on this site to enable certain parts of the site to function and to collect information about your use of the site so that we can improve our visitors’ experience.

For more on our cookies and changing your settings click here

Strictly Necessary


Preferences & Features

Targeting / Advertising