Artist and Royal College of Art tutor Jeremy Millar reunites actress Jenny Runacre, star of Derek Jarman’s seminal 1978 punk movie ‘Jubilee’, with the figure of Renaissance courtier and conjuror John Dee in a new film commissioned by the Royal College of Physicians, almost 40 years after she originally played Elizabeth I to ‘Dr Dee’.
Shot at locations from the Sorbonne in Paris to the Elizabethan grandeur of Parnham House in Sussex and the quiet London suburb of Mortlake, where John Dee once lived and is still remembered by a plaque in the local parish church, the film is formed of a series of meditations on the multi-faceted nature of Dee’s life, work and intellectual passions.
A bibliophile, mathematician, magician, astronomer, astrologer, explorer, occultist, imperialist, alchemist and spy, Dee was an extraordinary figure, a person for whom the word ‘polymath’ almost seems to have been coined. In seeking to capture the essence of this original ‘Renaissance man’ Millar draws on and is inspired by the places that Dee visited, studied at or lived in during his life.
Continuing in the vein of the artist’s previous work, such as the recent ‘Twelve Tales on a Ming Flask’ created with the British Museum, the film is characterised by a strong affinity with the antique, in this case the objects that Dee once owned and the books that he read. It also incorporates the achievements of past artists who have sought to depict Dee, including a lost 17th century portrait, fusing these with echoes of other creators, like Jarman, to form an entirely new evocation in film of one of Elizabethan England’s most enigmatic and intriguing personalities.
The pole star of ‘A Constellation for John Dee’ is the actress Jenny Runacre, who performs the voiceover, knitting together an array of images and resonances. Much praised for her suitably magisterial performance as Elizabeth I, Runacre has worked with cinema greats including Huston, Pasolini, Antonioni and Roeg during her illustrious career.
The film forms part of the exhibition ‘Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee’ which sees a selection of the Tudor personality’s never previously displayed books go on show. The volumes on subjects from astrology and alchemy to cryptography, mathematics, politics and the art of love appear alongside some of his most precious personal possessions, including a crystal for contacting spirits, magic disc for conversing with angels, and ‘scrying mirror’ for summoning visions. The film will be shown throughout the exhibition with special screenings on certain dates.
Over four centuries in scope, the displays outline the impact the image and myth of John Dee has had on the arts, from inspiring Shakespeare’s creation of Prospero in ‘The Tempest’ right up to our own time and Damon Albarn’s recent opera ‘Dr Dee’.
Jeremy Millar’s ‘A Constellation for John Dee’ represents an evocative addition to the canon of art inspired by one of the most mysterious and fascinating figures of the English Renaissance.