In 1987, Derek Jarman bought a former fisherman’s cottage on Dungeness Beach in Kent. It’s a wild, bleak place: in one direction, a nuclear power station looms like a portent of doom; in the other, infinity is intimated in the slate-grey waves of the English Channel. The year before he bought Prospect Cottage, the artist, activist and filmmaker was diagnosed with HIV. Writing in the catalogue accompanying this exhibition, Jarman’s friend, the photographer Howard Sooley, recalls: ‘He cheated death hiding among the flowers and dancing with the bees.’ Jarman painted the walls of his new home tar black and its window frames buttercup yellow. Refusing to be cowed by the inhospitable terrain, he cultivated plants that could withstand the shingle and the fierce, salty winds and bloom brightly: alexanders, foxgloves, periwinkle, poppies, purple iris, sea kale, viper’s bugloss and others. His garden was as much a metaphor for memory and hope as it was earth and plants. In his memoir Modern Nature (1991), he recalls: ‘Flowers spring up and entwine themselves like bindweed along the footpaths of my childhood.’
Prospect Cottage was Jarman’s solace. It was where he created not only one of England’s most famous gardens but also where he shot films – including The Last of England (1987) and The Garden (1990) – painted pictures, created sculptures, entertained friends and wrote the diary that was to become Modern Nature. In 1989, he observed: ‘There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon.’ He may as well have been describing himself. The latter part of this quote is the title of a wonderful exhibition dedicated to Jarman at London’s Garden Museum.
Curated by Emma House and designed by Jeremy Herbert, the show – a re-creation of Prospect Cottage – is a moving substitute for the real thing, which is not open to the public. It’s also a well-timed celebration of the Art Fund’s successful campaign to save the cottage for the nation after raising GB£3.5 million earlier this year. (A public programme will include residencies for academics, artists, filmmakers, gardeners and writers.) I imagine Jarman might have enjoyed the exhibition’s location: the Garden Museum inhabits a re-purposed mediaeval and Victorian church, St Mary-at-Lambeth. Jarman railed against the church’s hypocrisies, even as he loved its rituals.
Before entering the cottage, you’re greeted by two raw howls of protest: the apocalyptic paintings Oh Zone and Acid Rain (both 1992). You crunch across the shingle, past a photo mural of the Dungeness landscape, a driftwood sculpture and Jarman’s lovely, weathered gardening tools, and enter the cottage via a narrow corridor. A small painting by Jarman’s friend, the director Gus van Sant, hangs on the wall: it’s of Dorothy’s house being lifted by the tornado in The Wizard of Oz (1939) – a film that so terrified Jarman when he first saw it as a child that, he recalled in his diary that, he ‘bolted through the cinema and out to the street’. To the right of the corridor, a film is projected onto the wall of a room: excerpts from Jarman’s dazzling Super-8 film The Garden. Images are as jumpy as in a dream, saturated in beauty but shot through with a sense of foreboding. A boy places a snail on a stick. A butterfly, as vivid as a ruby, hovers over a flower. A young woman in a purple field closes her eyes in the sunshine. A young man smokes, squinting into the distance. A poppy, a crow, the nuclear power plant – all drift in and out of focus. A tall, white-robed figure is framed by pylons. Jarman, silhouetted, waters his plants, giving life to the land even as it ebbs from him. The sea glitters in the distance. Everything dissolves into light.
This tiny cottage contains worlds: impasto paintings and bricolages, photographs, personal artefacts, tools, gardening books and Jarman’s Super-8 camera. Open journals record not only the progress of the garden but his love for his partner, Keith Collins, his musings on sex, death and the environment, the shabby failings of modern culture, the horror of friends dying from AIDS, and the terrifying inevitability of his own demise. The natural world was evidently a profound distraction: the open drawers of his large wooden desk reveal not pens and paper but a collection of beach stones.
Jarman died in 1994, aged 52. Five years earlier, in the week that he publicly announced he had HIV, he wrote in his diary: ‘Apart from the nagging past – film, sex and London – I have never been happier […] I look up and see the deep azure sea outside my window in the February sun, and today I saw my first bumble bee. Planted lavender and clumps of red-hot poker.’
Main image: The garden at Prospect Cottage by Howard Sooley, 1990. © Howard Sooley