Arts and Design

‘Surreal fable’ by Derek Jarman to be published for the first time


An unpublished short story by the late artist and film-maker Derek Jarman will be available to buy for the first time later this year.

Jarman, who is best known for his films Sebastiane, Caravaggio and Blue, wrote Through the Billboard Promised Land Without Ever Stopping, his only piece of narrative fiction, in 1971. More than 50 years later, and marking the year its author would have been 80, the story will finally become available in a special edition book to be published in November by House Sparrow Press, an imprint of independent house Prototype.

The book will also feature facsimile images of drafts of the story from Jarman’s archive, and include an afterword by Jarman scholar Declan Wiffen and a tribute by his friend and fellow artist Michael Ginsborg. An exclusive audio recording of Jarman reading the story will be released alongside the book.

Described as “a surreal, fable-like, lyrical tale” by its publisher, Through the Billboard tells the story of a blind young king and his valet, disguised as beggars, who set off on a journey together. The Turner prize-nominated artist is said to have told his friend Dom Sylvester Houédard that it was “autobiographical although deeply buried”.

The writing of Through the Billboard represented a turning point in Jarman’s career, as Tony Peake explained in his 1999 biography. Having found success as a film production designer, the then 29-year-old rejected several offers to go to Hollywood, fearing that his artistry and identity as a gay man would be compromised by a commercial career. In autumn of that year, Jarman made his first film, Electric Fairy (now lost).

The book’s publishers, Jess Chandler and Gareth Evans, said the opportunity to publish it was “a great privilege”. They described the 10,000-word story as “rich with the style, imagery and beauty of his later work, and a fascinating insight into the development of his filmic sensibility”.

“It is haunted by the spectre of the current climate crisis,” they added, noting that while the text is “a formal anomaly in Jarman’s oeuvre, it nonetheless echoes through his later work”.

“The Billboard Promised Land” was a favourite phrase of Jarman’s, appearing handwritten on the back cover of his only poetry collection, A Finger in the Fishes Mouth. Plans for the story’s publication were discussed with Keith Collins, Jarman’s longtime companion, who died suddenly in 2018. The book will be dedicated to him.



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