Prospect Cottage: Derek Jarman’s wild garden

An unlikely oasis on a spit of the Kent coastline, Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage became his creative inspiration, showcase and sanctuary. After the death of his partner Keith Collins, a new campaign aims to raise the funds to maintain it for more generations of wild artist.

Ben Walters

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage

Prospect Cottage, the filmmaker, artist and activist Derek Jarman wrote, was “the last of a long line of ‘escape houses’ I started building as a child” – improvised bolt-holes of grass and sand, metal and wood, spaces at once found and made, enabling refuge from the existing and creation of the new.

If Prospect Cottage was the end of this line, it could also feel like the end of the world. Tar black with bright yellow windows, this hardy wooden fisherman’s abode was built in 1900 on the sprawling spare shingle expanse of Dungeness, on the Kent coast. Across the shingle to the east, it faces a band of road and a ribbon of sea; to the south, the nuclear power plant lowers on the horizon. This spur of England gets more wind and sun than the rest and when buffeted by a hurricane or an explosion at the plant – both of which happened soon after Jarman bought the place in 1986 and moved in – it felt apocalyptic. There were other inauspicious intimations at the time: homophobia and philistinism were ascendant and Jarman had recently been diagnosed with HIV.

The beauty he accomplished in Dungeness, then, was remarkable. He stripped out the chintz and added warm, chunky brutalist furniture, a sun-room extension and a Donne poem on the cottage’s north face, letters in Jarman’s hand rendered in plywood. And, preposterously, he started making a garden there, out of dog rose and gorse and opium poppies, driftwood and lichen and foot-high hunks of flint. The front garden was ordered and geometric, circles and squares; the back was scattered and wild, rusted metal jags and stubbornly spreading bushes. Jarman adored its resinous, honeyed and acrid scents and its summer colours, “like a packet of liquorice all sorts”. The place was a surprise but not a miracle: it didn’t deny its harsh conditions but revealed their potential. “So many weeds,” Jarman observed, “are spectacular flowers.”

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage

Prospect Cottage, he thought, was like Dorothy’s house dropped in Oz. But its alien terrain was also some place like home. It’s where Jarman prepared and made work, entertained friends and lovers, surveyed, plotted, dreamed and despaired. It’s where his companion and collaborator Keith Collins cared intimately for him and where, when he was allowed out of Bart’s hospital in the months before his death in 1994, he tried to be.

Following Collins’s own passing in 2018, this fragile and unlikely site became newly precarious, at risk of sale, dismemberment and erasure. A new campaign – launched at the Slade art school in London on 22 January 2020 by Art Fund, Creative Folkestone and Tate – aims to raise £3.5 million by 31 March to secure the site and, crucially, support its generative powers. As well as archiving Dungeness-related materials and works, the scheme will bring the cottage and garden into public ownership, secure their restoration and upkeep and support residencies by artists, filmmakers, writers, gardeners, academics, activists and others. Major grants have raised more than £1.5 million already. A crowdfunding campaign seeking the rest offers bespoke rewards ranging from a badge-and-sticker set by Jeremy Deller for £25 to a set of prints by Isaac Julien for £1,250. Other contributions come from Michael Craig-Martin, Tacita Dean, Howard Sooley and Wolfgang Tillmans.

Some of the artists helping the Prospect Cottage fundraising campaign. Left to right: Creative Folkestone director Alastair Upton, Tacita Dean, Julian Sands, Tilda Swinton, Michael Craig-Martin, Tate director Maria Balshaw and Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar

Some of the artists helping the Prospect Cottage fundraising campaign. Left to right: Creative Folkestone director Alastair Upton, Tacita Dean, Julian Sands, Tilda Swinton, Michael Craig-Martin, Tate director Maria Balshaw and Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar

The scheme will also enable public visits to the cottage’s interior. To spend time there is an extraordinary privilege. It’s quite spacious, sturdily insulated against the wind, brimming with beauty, life, wit and learning. Light pours in. Art is everywhere, not least Jarman’s own: anguished, violently coloured paintings against bigotry; captivating installations of weathered wood, smooth stone and aged metal; playfully placed fairy guardians and buzzsaw crucifixions.

An assemblage of He-Man going down on Venus sits on a medieval-panelled dresser; a worn sage-green sofa looks onto an inadvertently homoerotic poster pilfered from the Rome subway. On the walls are pieces by Maggi Hambling, John Maybury, Angus McBean, Gus Van Sant, Richard Hamilton, Robert Medley. The painting room still has its pots of brushes. Props and awards sit next to metal cocks and tiaras, volumes on magick near a Ladybird book of nuclear power. It feels lived-in, comfortable, powerful. The garden, iron grey and glaucous green in January, mesmerises. It’s like being in a kaleidoscope, every step or turn of the head affording new aspects and alignments of plants, rocks, sculptures, cottage and landscape.

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage

Indeed, Prospect Cottage was a confluent place in Jarman’s life, channeling many streams. It was a home and refuge, a place of solace and fortification with friends, but also a site requiring occasional defence against prurient press, over-ardent fans or cheeky pruners. It was the main location for The Garden (1990), Jarman’s Super 8 reverie on religion, media, politics and persecution, and features prominently in his journals (published as Modern Nature and Smiling in Slow Motion) and the book Derek Jarman’s Garden, alongside Howard Sooley’s photographs. The garden was a serious thing, attracting the attention of English Nature and the Royal Horticultural Society and connecting Jarman to historical lineages of both garden- and art-making, from Tudor to Fluxus. It also evoked his own experiences with planted land, from his earliest memories to romantic interludes to intimations of mortality.

“My garden is a memorial,” he wrote, “each circular bed and dial a true lover’s knot.” Here is the garden as affective archive, but also as part of an organic line whose tendrils stretch from Eden to Hampstead Heath. “The alfresco fuck is the original fuck,” Jarman observed.

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage

Prospect Cottage was a site of queer being and becoming, community and care – and Jarman was active in reclaiming queer as a word and a position against a normative gay identity he disdained. On Dungeness beach, he was canonised by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in “high palare” and the coronation gown from Edward II, gold sparkling on the shingle.

Prospect Cottage links, then, to other instances of the queer bucolic: the floral fantasia of Un chant d’amour, say, or the crossdressing idyll of Casa Susanna. We talk often, and rightly, of the significance of urban nightlife spaces to queer living but here is another kind of lineage written in material space. Such sites are important not only as relics but as resources: they are queer engines, powerful, sophisticated and generative technologies of difference and creation.

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage

This is why the new campaign’s most exciting aspect might be its planned residency programme, enabling the place to be lived in again. At the Slade launch event, Tilda Swinton pointed out that what is at stake is not merely the preservation of beauty for posterity but the imperative “to resuscitate and ensure the continued vibrational existence of a living battery”. A saved Prospect Cottage will be a site not only of loving pilgrimage but of utopian production – an escape house for the future, a hope machine.

“My mind keeps floating back to Dungeness,” Jarman once wrote from his hospital bed. “There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon.”

Derek Jarman outside Prospect Cottage

Derek Jarman outside Prospect Cottage

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