‘I should have been a gardener’: How Derek Jarman found joy and healing in his garden

In the same year that the avant-garde filmmaker tested positive for HIV, he bought a little cottage in Kent. Mary Katharine Tramontana tells how he gained solace from growing plants during his final years

Thursday 23 April 2020 16:11
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Prospect Cottage is known both for its garden and distinct window frames
Prospect Cottage is known both for its garden and distinct window frames

On the flat, otherworldly shingle expanse of Dungeness, a headland in southern England, stands a wooden cottage with a small garden. The tar-black cabin with its canary-yellow trim is surrounded by rambling flowers and driftwood totems bedecked with sun-bleached crab claws and snail shells: a quaint scene thrown out of kilter by a nuclear power plant that looms in the background.

The house, called Prospect Cottage, was home to British filmmaker, artist and activist Derek Jarman, a prominent figure in avant-garde London circles from the 1970s to the 1990s. His first feature, Sebastiane (1976), a film all in Latin about the martyrdom of St Sebastian, garnered attention for its unabashed homoeroticism. Jarman went on to direct many films based on gay and bisexual historical figures, such as the arty biopics Caravaggio (1986) and Wittgenstein (1993). He also made music videos for the Smiths, Pet Shop Boys and Bryan Ferry.

In 1986, after testing positive for HIV at the height of the panic over the virus, Jarman spoke publicly about his diagnosis and became a leading voice in Aids activism. The same year, he bought Prospect Cottage for £32,000 with a modest inheritance from his father, and soon began his garden there.

In his diaries, Jarman wrote of the salve the garden provided him amid the Aids crisis. He saw his “pharmacopoeia” of medicinal plants – lavender, daffodils, sea kale – and wild bees as therapy, and, in an interview for British television a year before his death, said: “I should’ve been a gardener.”

Jarman died of an Aids-related illness in 1994, and he left the cottage to his partner, Keith Collins, who tended the garden until he, too, passed away in 2018. Before he died, Collins set up a trust to preserve the property. A fundraising campaign, led by the Art Fund, raised £3.7m, and Creative Folkstone, a local arts organisation, will offer residencies in the house for artists, thinkers, writers and others – including gardeners.

The campaign was supported by some of Jarman’s friends and collaborators, including the actor Tilda Swinton. In a speech at an introductory event in London in March, Swinton said that some places were worth preserving not simply to remember an artist’s life, but “because of the influence they had on that life, the working practice they made possible” and “the liminal energy they afforded”.

Jarman directed 11 feature films, as well as dozens of short films and music videos

The campaign raised the funds in just 10 weeks, through more than 8,000 crowdfunding donations, substantial contributions from trusts and foundations, and a donation from the artist David Hockney. Sandy Powell, a costume designer who worked with Jarman, contributed by collecting celebrity signatures on a suit she wore to the Oscars, the Critics’ Choice Awards and the BAFTAs, which she auctioned for about £16,000.

During this coronavirus pandemic, it is perhaps worth exploring what can be learned from Jarman’s act of nurturing plants during his own health emergency. Can the simple, tactile pleasure of pottering in the dirt or watching seedlings sprout comfort us at a time of loss and bewilderment?

Speaking by phone from her home in London, Powell, whose first film job was on Caravaggio, says that getting lost in gardening had given Jarman the solace and energy to continue working – even after Aids robbed him of his sight.

As he went blind, Jarman saw a blue light, which he recreated in the film Blue, released in 1993, a feature-length meditation on impending death, narrated over a single shot of saturated ultramarine, with a soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner.

You’re staring at the screen and it doesn’t make sense. Then you go out to the garden and 10 minutes later it just kind of resolves itself – that’s the mystery of gardens

Creating “made him happy and kept him sane,” Powell says. “His enthusiasm and lust for life was infectious. He was extremely generous with his time and knowledge, always saying: ‘You have to go to work every day as if it were a party.’”

As well as developing his films at Prospect Cottage, Jarman also made paintings and sculptures and wrote books and poetry there. And he used flotsam from the beach to make art from found objects.

Howard Sooley, a photographer who knew Jarman, says: “He got through every illness known to humankind, remarkably, because he was always busy.” The two met in 1991 when Sooley went to photograph the garden for the magazine The Face. Later, after they became friends, Sooley helped Jarman gather flotsam for the garden on the beach and drove the filmmaker to and from hospital many times.

Jarman’s use of shingle reflected the harshness of the coastal environment – but also showed that it could be overcome

“Gardening carries you to a fundamental place of living, rather than doing,” Sooley says. “When he was quite ill, he’d just grow the second we got onto Dungeness, gardening all day like he was breathing air.”

Christopher Woodward, director of the Garden Museum in London, says that gardens are “more than pretty ornamental things”. (A coming show at the museum about Prospect Cottage, which will feature photographs by Sooley, has been postponed to an unspecified later date because of the coronavirus.)

Gardens offer respite from the pressures of modern life, Woodward says. “You’re staring at the screen and it doesn’t make sense. Then you go out to the garden and 10 minutes later it just kind of resolves itself,” he adds. “That’s the mystery of gardens.”

Stephen Deuchar, who ran the Art Fund campaign and is a trustee of Creative Folkestone in Kent, says that Jarman’s garden was a response to the unusual landscape at Dungeness, which includes not just the brutal-looking nuclear power plant, but also a miniature steam train that chugs across the headland. “It’s as if there’s a contest between the optimism and audacity of plants and the relentlessness of the shingle,” Deuchar says.

“There’s something moving about a small plant that springs up, forging its way to the surface through the stones,” he says. “It’s what makes his garden – his last great work of art – so mesmerising.”

With no fences or soil and gales of leaf-singeing salt, the challenge to grow life in such an inhospitable environment reflected Jarman’s tenacity to continue creating despite the virus that ravaged him; each blossom is a marvel.

“A garden locates you in eternity, Derek often said,” notes Olivia Laing, an author whose latest book, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, includes an essay on the garden at Dungeness.

“It also connects you to the future,” she says. “When you don’t know how much time you have left, that sense of planting something that will flower next summer is immensely sustaining.”

© The New York Times

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