Derek Jarman at Prospect Cottage

In the 1980s, Derek Jarman, an English film-maker, artist and gay rights activist, bought a fisherman’s cottage in Dungeness, Kent, and created a unique garden.

Derek Jarman 'Enthroned' on Driftwood Chair, Dungeness, Kent (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

Derek Jarman was born in 1942 and is well known for his work as the director and cinematographer of ‘Caravaggio’ (1986), ‘Edward II’ (1991) and ‘Wittgenstein’ (1993). He made eleven feature length films as well as many short films and music videos for artists such as The Smiths, The Sex Pistols and The Pet Shop Boys to name a few. His artistic work expands beyond film to set design, paintings, sculptures, books as well as his garden.

Poppy, Scabious and Valerian, Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

The garden is a work of art reflecting Jarman’s life. From 1986 Jarman lived with HIV and died from an AIDS related illness in 1994. Jarman had the garden until his death and described it and gardening as an act of love and grief, as he lost close friends to the disease.

In ‘Modern Nature’ (1992), his published journals recording the creation of the garden, he describes it as ‘a memorial, each circular bed and dial a true lover’s knot’.

Plantings and Stakes Looking Out to Power Station (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

Dungeness is a large shingle beach overlooked menacingly by a nuclear power station. It is dotted with fishing huts and abandoned fishing equipment as well as a small pub and two light houses, one made redundant by the power station which blocked its lights. The isolated spot has unusual biodiversity and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Jarman visited Dungeness to film shortly after being diagnosed as HIV positive. Actress Tilda Swinton saw a ‘for sale sign’ in the window and Jarman knew it was the place for him. This became his home Prospect Cottage. He used it and surrounding landscape for scenes in his films ‘The Last of England’ (1987) and ‘The Garden’ (1990).

Front Garden, Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

‘My garden’s boundaries are the horizon’ - Jarman in ‘Modern Nature’.

Fork Embedded in Gravel, Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

The unique landscape at Dungeness is an essential part of his garden. He never divided the shingle beach or nuclear power station beyond from his garden, in fact it was his favourite aspect of the garden. In his final book ‘Derek Jarman’s Garden’ he writes ‘But above all I love that, visually, the garden doesn’t end.’

Derek Jarman Watering Raised Bed (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

While the unique landscape enhanced the garden, it was also a great challenge. Dungeness is very exposed with strong salty winds, little shade and almost no soil.

Jarman created the garden by hand, digging into the shingle, building beds and banks to help with the difficult growing conditions. He would sometimes use manure from a local farm and as the years passed soil started to form from the fall of vegetation.

Eschscholzias and Salvia, Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

Photographer Howard Sooley worked in the garden with Jarman and recalls that ‘It always felt miraculous to me that anything could grow there, nothing was taken for granted, every plant that found its way, grew and blossomed was special -gardening against the odds- this wasn’t wasted on Derek.’

Sooley had been commissioned in 1990 to photograph Jarman and the pair became friends spending many hours in garden together. The photographs in this exhibition were all taken by Sooley between his first visit in 1990 and Jarman’s death in 1994.

Front Garden to Prospect Cottage with Power Station Beyond (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

Despite the difficult growing conditions and his illness, Jarman was optimistic and quickly began to design a front garden for the cottage. Sooley reflect that ‘His sketchbooks from then, show simple line drawings of a garden plan and a plant list, you can sense the intention and excitement. Written in red pen next to them are the words “gardening on borrowed time”.

The front garden began as a series of geometric shapes made of foraged white flint embellished with other stones and plants such as salvias and poppies. Poppies were a recurring motif in his films as well as throughout the garden.

Prospect Cottage from Rear with Plantings and Verticle Timber, Dungeness, Kent (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

The back garden was more random, lacking the formal shapes of the front, and the space developed a fluid structure governed by the plants in each season.

Native plants such as sea kale, wild peas and the poppies planted themselves. Jarman worked with them, sprinkling additional seeds and introducing new plants from local nurseries. Plants had to be hardy to survive the coastal weather and extreme summer sun which would heat the shingle. He brought santolina, sage, lavender and curry plants which could survive these conditions.

Stakes Trimmed with Rusty Iron Around Lavender (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

The plants he introduced were not just hardy but linked to his own struggle and grief, in ‘Modern Nature’ he writes ‘Santolina, under the dominion of Mercury resisteth poison; putrefaction, and heals the bites of venomous beasts. Whilst a sprig of Lavender held in the hand or placed under the pillow enables you to see ghosts, travel to the land of the dead’

Jarman was very interested in the traditions and mythology around plants. He noted that almost all the plants growing abundantly on the beach where referenced in folklore or old herbals, books that listed plants with their identifying features and uses of the body.

Field Poppy and Assorted Iron and Wood, Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

The beach at Dungeness is scattered with dilapidated sheds, rusty tools and rotting boats stranded in the sand. Driftwood along with debris from the Second World War and around the world washes ashore.

Jarman collected these objects and used them to create the unique sculptures in his garden, as he records in ‘Modern Nature’ ‘spent the day beachcombing, discovered an anchor and wooden oars for the garden’. This brought the landscape not just visually but physically into the garden.

Semi-circle of Old Iron on Stake, Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

Sculpture in Jarman's garden.

Rusty Spanner Skewered on Vertical Stake, Prospect Cottage, Dungeness (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

Sculpture in Jarman's garden.

Driftwood with Pebbles, Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

Sculpture in Jarman's garden.

Derek Jarman Gardening, Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

‘Derek fought illness with openness, busying himself with so many things that there was little time or room left for illness. In a way it worked, and for a time he cheated death hiding amongst the flowers dancing with the bees.’ – Howard Sooley

Derek Jarman in Hooded Cloak with Plant and Trowel at Prospect Cottage (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

In 1994 Derek Jarman died from an AIDS related illness. He was buried not far from Prospect Cottage in the graveyard at St Clement’s Church, Old Romeny. Jarman left a creative legacy not only in his films but also horticulturally. His garden is one of the most influential of modern times and unique in its relationship to the landscape at Dungeness.

It is an example of how a garden became inseparable from illness but also how gardening became a resolution. Even when hospitalised Jarman would take out his drip and visit the site. Sooley recalls that ‘Derek never appeared happier, more at ease and content than when he was gardening.’

Credits: Story

All images are copyright of Howard Sooley. We would like to thank Howard Sooley for his support with this project.

Credits: All media
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