Derek Jarman: When yellow wishes to ingratiate it becomes gold at Amanda Wilkinson Gallery

UPON entering Derek Jarman’s exhibition at Amanda Wilkinson’s eponymous first floor gallery in Soho, London, a visitor may be mistaken in thinking they have stumbled across a repository of reliquaries from another era. Taking its title from Chroma, Jarman’s book on colour published in 1993, the exhibition When yellow wishes to ingratiate it becomes gold comprises paintings and assemblages spanning a decade from 1982 until 1992, two years before the artist’s death from AIDS.

Created during a particularly turbulent period of Derek Jarman’s life, the works on display explore interests which range from alchemy and 17th century metaphysics to the politics of 1980s Britain. Jarman’s father, Lancelot Elworthy Jarman, a Royal Air Force officer, passed away in 1986. Soon after the loss of his father, Derek decided to purchase Prospect Cottage in Dungeness; he would very shortly go on to be diagnosed as HIV positive. In the same pivotal year, Jarman met Keith Collins, who would become a life-partner with whom he would live until his death in 1994. 

From as early as the mid 1970s, Jarman’s artwork was a manifesto for open homosexuality. After he was diagnosed as HIV positive, he became one of the first public figures to speak openly about living with the illness. As a prominent member of the queer rights direct action group OutRage!, Jarman spoke passionately at the 1988 inaugural AIDS and Human Rights conference, demanding a fundamental shift away from indifference, scapegoating and denial towards education, treatment and support for AIDS victims.

Setting the tone for a body of works that explore the very essence and the chiaroscuro nature of a life authentically lived, the exhibition opens with Old Mortality, 1982, which drew inspiration from alchemical symbolism, the works of Caravaggio and El Greco’s Pieta. Opposite this work hangs two yellow paintings, also from the early 1980s, which refer to both Jarman’s childhood and adult life spent in Italy and his affinity for the country.

 Old Mortality, 1982, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 86.4 cm


Untitled (Yellow Painting – The Pleasures of Italy)1983, oil on canvas, 134.6 x 101.6 x 2 cm


Painted in 1986, Grievous Bodily Harm is an energetic painting built up of thick impasto of black and red oil paint incorporating a smashed pane of glass engraved with the words ‘Victorian’, ‘Night’, ‘GB’, ‘Life’ and ‘Values’. The work expresses Jarman’s anger at the damage that successive administrations led by Margaret Thatcher wrought upon Great Britain, underlining the hypocrisy and illusion of a Britain that was ‘great’, alongside the reality of a country mired with conservative Victorian values more akin to the violence of grievous bodily harm.  


Grievous Bodily Harm1986, oil and mixed media on canvas, 46.3 x 35.6 cm


Derek Jarman’s Black Paintings, created between 1986 and 1990 at Prospect Cottage are, according to Jarman, ‘redolent of the void, a realm of chaos and night’. Merging thick layers of oil paint with shattered fragments of glass and text, the works feature found objects, often gleaned from sites close to the cottage. Gilded into imperfect artefacts, the works remind the viewer of the alchemical potential for even rusted or eroded objects to be transmuted into treasure. 


Installation view, Derek Jarman: When yellow wishes to ingratiate it becomes gold


Speaking of magic, Jarman has said, “I think of the area of magic as a metaphor for the homosexual situation. You know, magic which is banned and dangerous, difficult and mysterious. I can see that use of magic in the Cocteau films, in Kenneth Anger and very much in Eisenstein. Maybe it is an uncomfortable, banned area which is disruptive, and maybe it is a metaphor for the gay situation.”

In reference to Christianity and the religion’s condemnation of homosexuality, The Boy who drowned in Holy Water, 1990, incorporates a small holy water font alongside a used condom, while Untitled (gold bible), 1990, juxtaposes a copy of the Bible alongside a thermometer, a tool used to measure degrees of illness. Jarman would later explicitly attack both the Old and New Testaments in his film The Garden, 1990, ‘a parable about the cruel and unnecessary perversion of innocence’ filmed at Prospect Cottage and its nearby nuclear power station: settings that Jarman compared to the Gardens of Eden and Gethsemane.


The Boy who drowned in Holy Water1990, oil and mixed media on canvas, 35.6 x 25.4 cm


Untitled (gold bible)1990, oil and mixed media on canvas, 30.8 x 25.4 cm


Some three decades after the works in the exhibition were created, Derek Jarman’s impassioned cries for freedom ring clear. Speaking analogously of the garden at Prospect Cottage in 1989, Jarman said, “There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon.”


Derek Jarman, When yellow wishes to ingratiate it becomes gold, is on view at Amanda Wilkinson Gallery until 7 August 2021.


by Rowena Chiu


All images courtesy of the Keith Collins Will Trust and Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London.