If there were a choice, Derek Jarman implored God, then could he please go to hell. And if the almighty insisted on reincarnation then “please promise me that I will be queer”.
The heartfelt, witty prayers of the late artist, director and film-maker about his impending death are revealed in an artwork that is being made public for the first time.
Limited-edition prints of the work, titled Dear God, are being offered for sale to help a fundraising campaign to save Jarman’s home, Prospect Cottage, and garden in Dungeness, Kent.
The artwork, a mixed-media collage, was made in 1987, around the first anniversary of Jarman’s HIV diagnosis. It is one of a group, known as his black paintings, that express his anger and despair but also humour. Dear God hangs in Jarman’s bedroom at the cottage.
Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner who was a good friend of Jarman, said the director was “resigned to his HIV diagnosis and determined to increase his artistic output before his likely demise. He had bouts of ill health, but also periods when he was fairly well and able to carry on painting and making films.”
Tatchell recalled setting up in 1987 the world’s first organisation campaigning for the rights of people with HIV and seeking help from Jarman. It was a time when “people who were known or suspected to be gay were refused service in pubs and restaurants or told to go away and bring their own knives and forks,” he said. “There were calls by Conservative politicians to quarantine and even in one case gas gay people.”
Tatchell asked Jarman if he would speak at a conference he was organising to coincide with a world health ministerial summit on Aids. “He was immediately enthusiastic and said he would love to take the opportunity to make a public declaration about his HIV status and the need to shift governmental responses to the pandemic, from repression to education and support. He ended up being one of the keynote speakers.”
The upshot was that the official summit issued a declaration against discrimination, which had not previously been on its agenda. “Derek’s contribution was pivotal,” Tatchell said.
Jarman, whose films include Sebastiane, Jubilee and Caravaggio, died on 19 February 1994, aged 52.
The campaign aims to save a site that supporters say is an artwork in its own right, with an internationally recognised garden. Prospect Cottage, a small, pretty Victorian former fisherman’s house on a shingle beach, was bought by Jarman in 1986. Following his death it was carefully looked after by Jarman’s long-time companion, Keith Collins, who died in 2018. One strand of the plan is for the cottage to have residency programmes and small group tours.
The limited-edition prints of Dear God will be sold for £475 as part of the campaign to raise £3.5m to save Prospect Cottage. So far £2.1m has been raised including through grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund, the Linbury Trust. There have been individual donations from thousands of people including Stephen Fry, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Neil Tennant and Alys Fowler. The deadline is 31 March.