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1991 Derek at Dungeness

Explore the 1991 catalogue

In his diary entry for Tuesday 9 July 1991, the artist and film-maker Derek Jarman jotted down the details of an early morning visit to the Fauve Landscape exhibition at the Royal Academy with the Academy’s Exhibition Secretary Norman Rosenthal: “Up in the lift where Norman ticked off the lift attendant—‘It’s too full’—and then the ticket collector for half closing the doors: ‘The RA,’ he told him, ‘is about looking.’”1 The diary doesn’t mention whether Jarman also visited the Summer Exhibition that day; but if he did, he would have come face-to-face with a small portrait of himself by the Royal Academician Jeffery Camp.

The Academy may be “about looking”, but you would have had to look pretty hard to have spotted Jeffery Camp’s Derek at Dungeness (Fig. 1). This modest painting was hung in the nautically themed Gallery IX—a room towards the end of the Exhibition, whose pages in the catalogue that year read like a list of items that might have washed up on the beach one morning with a changing tide: Feather, Sponge and Shell, Slippery Pole.

Camp had been down to draw Jarman at Dungeness in the previous year. They met when Jarman studied at the Slade from 1963, where Camp taught a first-year drawing course. Perhaps it was through the “gorgeous” parties held at the younger artist’s Bankside studio that they stayed in touch.2 In 1987, Jarman bought the small fisherman’s cottage at Dungeness—a bleak headland on the coast of Kent—where he began constructing his now famous garden among the shingle. In the previous year, he had been diagnosed as HIV positive. It was Dungeness that Jarman craved when in the spring of 1990, he was hospitalised with tuberculosis and temporarily lost his sight. His return was euphoric; “Back home my garden is ablaze with poppies … scarlet poppies, dark red poppies, field poppies, white and purple opium poppies. My garden is as bright as a fairground.”3

It was around this time that Camp visited. He made several pencil sketches of Jarman’s bowed head—perhaps watering the garden or writing in his diary—and colour studies of the hardy scrubscape. He then worked these drafts up into a series of surreal pictures, combining several perspectives and introducing new or imagined figures. In these paintings, bodies and faces are clustered together like clumps of sea-kale, jersey cudweed, or some other strange vegetation Jarman described flourishing in his garden, as if Camp was also encouraging life from the stony desert. One such image is one-and-a-half metres wide, and would have surely caught the eye even in a crowded hang at the Academy (Fig. 2). In the end, Camp chose not to exhibit these extraordinary paintings and instead submitted the more directly representative portrait Derek at Dungeness.

In place of the bold gestural sweeps of colour dragged across the canvas of the larger picture, in Derek at Dungeness the paint is worked thinly but carefully with dabs and dashes—built up to form contrasting areas of transparency and solidity. Though the texture of the canvas is clearly visible below much of the brushwork, the paint applied to Jarman’s features has been layered to form a complex structure of tones across his brow, temple, and cheeks. A further touch of colour to the throat and chin reflects the heat of a nearby bonfire and casts a warm glow across his skin in chromatic contrast to the dark bank of cloud being carried inland across the sea. It is as if Camp has revelled in presenting, not just a likeness of his subject—the marks outlining the eyes and nose are comparatively light—but also the fullness of his flesh. This is Camp celebrating Jarman’s return to a semblance of healthy normality, despite his recent hospitalisation and the numerous “vulture culture” stories that overdetermined his supposedly immanent death: a small gesture flying in the face of a great tragedy.4 

Reviewing the Summer Exhibition for The Times, in 1991, John Russell Taylor declared that portraiture, “inescapable even 20 years ago … has now virtually vanished from the Royal Academy repertoire”, and suggested that a “disregard for portraiture implies doubt about the continuing validity of the form”.5 William Feaver, writing in The Observer, went even further, saying that in another portrait—painted by Rodrigo Moynihan—the late artist and art historian Lawrence Gowing looked as if he were posing “for a Rembrandt or a Reynolds self-portrait, seeing history made.”6 If the critics were unconvinced of the contemporary relevance of portraiture—seeing it only as a quirky academic throwback to processes of history-making in the time of Reynolds—it is little wonder that the portraits exhibited at the Summer Exhibition in 1991 barely figured in their reviews. Even when, as with Derek at Dungeness, portraits did engage with contemporary crises, the potential meaning of these paintings was roundly ignored.

When they see a portrait, viewers “construct an emphatic narrative based on [the] fragments of data” they know about the person presented “alongside the portrait image”.7 The writer Olivia Laing remembers that “in the early 1990s, Derek was always in the paper or on the radio” and presented a very public target for AIDS panic.8 We can be reasonably confident that any visitors to the Summer Exhibition who recognised the person presented in Derek at Dungeness—whether by resemblance or by name—would have also known that he had been diagnosed as HIV positive. Viewers would have brought their own “emphatic narrative” about what this meant to their reading of the painting. Where some might have anticipated an image of a victim—a person driven to ground by the physical effects of their illness or the stigma surrounding it—Camp’s portrait offers a picture of resilience in its place. Casting his gaze out to sea, Jarman weathers the wind that carries with it dark clouds, visually echoing the closing words of At Your Own Risk: “[as] the shadows closed in, the stars came out”.9

  1. Derek Jarman, Smiling in Slow Motion, Keith Collins (ed.) (London: Century, 2000), 32.↩︎

  2. Jeffery Camp, Almanac, Oya Richardson (ed.) (London: Royal Academy of Arts, in association with Art Space Gallery/Michael Richardson Contemporary Art: 2010).↩︎

  3. Derek Jarman, Modern Nature: The Journals of Derek Jarman (London: Vintage, 2018), 294.↩︎

  4. In her 1946 text, The Garden, Vita Sackville-West writes that “small pleasures must correct great tragedies”. For how this relates to Jarman’s evocation of a “cinema of small gestures”, see Daniel O’Quinn, “Gardening, History, and the Escape from Time: Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature”, October 89 (Summer 1999): 113.↩︎

  5. John Russell Taylor, “Old Friends and Familiar Faces”, The Times, 6 June 1991.↩︎

  6. William Feaver, “Stick, Stones and a Few Gems”, The Observer, 9 June 1991.↩︎

  7. Marcia Pointon, Portrayal and the Search for Identity (London: Reaktion, 2012), 15.↩︎

  8. Olivia Laing, “Introduction”, Modern Nature: The Journals of Derek Jarman (London: Vintage, 2018), vii.↩︎

  9. Derek Jarman, At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament (London: Hutchinson, 1992), 119.↩︎

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Explore the 1991 catalogue