The Last of England: Jarman’s Blakean vision

Another rather sombre anniversary today: Derek Jarman, artist, writer and film maker, died on February 19, 1994, from an AIDS-related illness aged 52, one of the few openly-gay artists in the UK at the time.

He is most widely known for films such as Jubilee (1977-8) and Caravaggio (1986), and the strongest influences on his style and content were Elizabethan figures such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and the magician, John Dee, yet Jarman also saw himself as a “Blakean leveller” and the leap from Renaissance England to Romantic artist was not such a hard one to make. Contemporaries and early critics of Blake saw his early works such as Poetical Sketches as a revival of Elizabethan poetry in contrast to the then-dominant Augustan style, and Blake himself was immersed in the worlds of Milton and English radicals of the Civil War and Interregnum.

A friend of mine, Mark Douglas, drew my attention to an obituary that appeared in Art Monthly after Jarman’s death, in which Roger Cook wrote:

When I think of Derek I think of William Blake’s fiery youthful giant Albion, incandescent with energy as represented in Blake’s engraving known as Glad Day or The Dance of Albion. Like Blake, he identified the ecstasy of human sexuality with freedom and protested its bondage. It was this that made him so passionate and open.

Jarman had a fascination with England that is perhaps the strongest link between his work and that of Blake’s. In The Last of England, the book published from diaries written at the time he was making the film of that name, Jarman lamented how through the film Chariots of Fire reduced Blake’s vision to “some muscular Christianism and jingo, crypto-faggy Cambridge stuff set to William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – a minor poet who wrote this popular football hymn”. The sarcasm and bitterness in those words, with their deprecatory reference to Blake as a “minor poet”, are a jaundiced reflection on the success of what he saw as jingoism compared to his own, more complex view of England’s green and pleasant land. His more passionate view about the Romantic artist was summed up in a note to Jubilee:

“all those who secretly work against the tyranny of Marxists fascists trade unionists maoists capitalists socialists etc… who have conspired together to destroy the diversity and holiness of each life in the name of materialism… For William Blake.”

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