The garden next door but one
Crowds come to Dungeness Beach to admire Derek Jarman's garden. But few visitors notice the work of his neighbour, Brian Yale, who has created a bizarre sculpture garden using materials washed up on the beach. Jonathan Glancey, however, found the plot. Photographs by Andrew Yale
Saturday 17 June 1995
This month, Derek Jarman's Garden (Thames & Hudson, pounds 14.95) places a posthumous straw hat on the sadly curtailed career of an English gardener of great originality. But less than a hundred yards away along the beach, Brian Yale continues to make his garden, a less well-known but equally inventive and highly wrought patch of shifting shingle.
At first, you notice little as you walk past. But something resembling a brightly coloured banana boat marooned outside Yale's cabin catches the eye. You feel drawn across the stones and pebbles. What you find is a puzzle: a promiscuous placing of plastic detritus, luridly coloured beach shoes, bottles and clothes pegs, forming in outline a surrealist boat named Mrs T. But puzzlement soon turns to curiosity, and curiosity to delight.
Brian Yale, inside the cottage putting finishing touches to seascapes realised in acrylics, won't mind if you wander around outside. For much of his career as an artist he has worked in the public realm, making sculptures for council estates and local authority parks in the poorest parts of east London.
Mrs T is named in homage to the woman who "messed up the country and destroyed the GLC where I worked for nearly 20 years as official artist and designer," says Yale. It is a boat-like sculpture that is anything but shipshape. "It's made of all the plastic bits and pieces that get washed on to the beach here," says Yale. "There's a long and romantic tradition of gathering driftwood when out beachcombing and placing it like sculpture in the home. But I've always been fascinated by plastic, and particularly by all this rubbish from the sea.
"Look at all those beach shoes; they're all different shapes and jellyfish colours, and they never come in pairs." Perhaps there's a Sargasso Sea of plastic beach shoes somewhere beyond the horizon; each September they migrate to the beach at Dungeness. "They never fail to turn up at the same time every year," says Yale. "But look at the rest of the bits and pieces that make up Mrs T and her crew: there's even half a set of false teeth."
Mrs T is only the most visible of Yale's nautical sculptures. The others are camouflaged, dug into the beach and only seen from above. They take you by surprise as you almost step on them. A sea serpent, its wiggly shape drawn with a stretch of old rope, writhes in the shingle wake of Mrs T. Two little monsters, a fond homage to Picasso's animal sculptures, in driftwood, nails and a bicycle seat, snap at your ankles as you walk towards the cabin door. You have to tread carefully to avoid a nest of sleepy pebble owls, or a slippery, scaly pike.
Here is a concrete duck, there a giant owl. That pile of ashen driftwood over there turns out to be the unlikely skeleton of a giant fish (piscis Yaleiensis). Wooden birds swing in the wind from driftwood posts, and a giant sundial with rusting steel numbers, supplied by Derek Jarman in exchange for one of Yale's seascapes, marks the hours under a dazzlingly bright sky (at Dungeness there are no trees, no hills, and no other form of shelter from the sun).
Will the sculpture garden ever be complete? "I'm always changing things around," says Yale, "replacing a plastic shoe that the weather's turned to dust with a colourful one newly washed up. But I suppose I will have to stop at some point. Even then, nothing stays the same here for long. The grass has been growing across the beach - God only knows how - and there are more plants here than ever before. In fact I got a letter recently from one of the conservation bodies offering me pounds 75 a year not to do any gardening on the landward side of the cottage so that some of the rare plants could get a hold on the shingle. That's the first time anyone's offered me money not to work."
Yale bought his cabin in 1980. "I'd been coming here with the family for years before that. I was known as an abstract artist until I began painting the seascape here. I don't think my Dungeness paintings are deliberately realistic; it's just that the sharpness of the light here seemed to dictate a sharply defined style."
One of these seascapes hangs in the studio inside the cabin. It is indeed as razor-sharp as the light outside, and in striking contrast to the decidely homely quality of the little building. "These cabins were built for the men who put up the old lighthouse" (which dates from 1906 and is now a tourist attraction; the present lighthouse, visible from 27 miles away, was opened in 1960). "They were then moved further down the beach, to where we are now. In between these cabins and the lighthouses, you'll find a hotch-potch of old railway carriages and other makeshift homes.
"It's certainly an odd place to live, and not many people's cup of tea. It's no English idyll, what with the savage weather, the harsh light and the nuclear power station up the road; but, like Derek Jarman, who came here in 1986, I find it inspiring."
The surreal quality of place, house and garden is reinforced if you leave Brian Yale and Dungeness by one of the surprisingly fast miniature steam trains of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch railway. As the train gathers speed, it rattles past Mrs T and Jarman's garden. By the time it reaches full speed, running through the ditches, drains and sheep of Romney Marsh, you cannot help wondering whether you have dreamt up the entire visit
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