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The miraculous thing about any kind of art is that it survives long after the person who made it is gone. Their body of work is a time capsule that allows you to discover them whenever you’re ready to meet them.
I didn’t discover Derek Jarman until 1996, two years after his death.
I went to the Barbican to see an exhibition of the photographer, Eve Arnold who I had fallen in love with through her stunning shots of Marilyn Monroe. The tickets gave us free entry to an exhibition of Jarman’s work and at the time, most importantly for me, a recreation of the garden at Dungeness on the roof of one of the galleries. The Arnold exhibition was wonderful, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Jarman. I bought Howard Sooley’s book of photographs of the garden. I have referred to it so often since then, I think I’m on my third copy.
At the time, I was working in Highgate where there was an excellent independent bookshop. I went in on my lunch break a few weeks after I’d seen the exhibition and they had a copy of Smiling in Slow Motion, the last volume of diaries Jarman wrote. I had discovered him entirely backwards and it didn’t matter a bit. I had found him at exactly the right time for me, and I continue to discover him in the most rewarding of ways.
I sometimes say that he is one of my heroes, but I don’t think that’s an adequate term for what he means to me. He is meaningful to me on a soul level. When I read him or encounter his work I feel seen by a man I never met.
Jarman lived in an old fisherman’s cottage on the shingle at Dungeness. In the midst of Europe’s largest desert, with the sea booming on one side and a power station crouching in the distance, he created a home and garden from what he found and what he could grow. When he died, he left Prospect Cottage to his partner, Keith who continued to live there until his death in 2018. You are not allowed to put up fences at Dungeness, so the garden sits proudly in the shingle and is both a part of and separate to the beach.
Over the years I have been to visit it many times. It has become a site of pilgrimage for me and so many other people, for all kinds of reasons. It is both wild and tamed, raw and cultivated, beautiful and bleak. Jarman made sculptures from flotsam and jetsam. He organised stones in patterns and colours. He created beds from sleepers that look like they were washed up on the last tide. It is a place that isn’t so much about what you can grow as about what you can conjure. It is properly magical.
In 2018, a crowd funding project was set up to buy Prospect Cottage to save what Derek had created and Keith had preserved. Now the cottage is open a few days a month for visits and I finally went to see it on Friday.
I was really excited, but also quite worried. I worried that I would step inside the cottage and discover that he wasn’t there or that he was, but the person he was there wasn’t for me.
It’s only a tiny cottage. I think the maximum number for tours is six people. There were four of us, me and a family group who are local to the area and who have always wanted to look inside. We were shown around by two guides from Creative Folkestone who look after the space.
It was beautiful in every way. It was such an alive place. I really hadn’t expected it to be so full of life. The word curated is over used so much these days, but Jarman was a curator of his own life and he did it in an entirely unforced way. It wasn’t a precious space, although the items in it are all meaningful and were chosen with care. Every object in the house earned its right to be there and had its place, but it wasn’t like a museum at all. I never wanted to leave, it felt so right.
It reminded me in many ways of Kettles’ Yard, which is another of my pilgrimage sites. Prospect Cottage is better, because Jim Ede conceived of a home that was also a gallery, whereas Prospect Cottage was just Jarman’s home.
You couldn’t take photos inside the house, which was a shame, because I wanted to photograph everything. I also wanted to touch everything, which you were also not allowed to do. Like Kettle’s Yard, paintings are displayed next to found objects, artworks next to dishes of sea glass or a pewter plate, piled with lavender heads. The steely mauve of the dried petals talking to the dull grey of the pewter. A Medieval church chest in dark, carved wood sports an assortment of small sculptures made of beach finds. He Man is caught in the embrace of a pebble, copper wire lashes stone, flecking grey on grey. Glass panels are etched with Jarman’s distinctive hand, exhorting God or loving Keith.
The studio space is dominated by a rugged, wooden work bench, flecked with oil paint as if Jarman has just wandered to the kitchen to clean his brushes. A surprisingly tender portrait of Jarman by Maggi Hambling looks down on proceedings, the sinuous lines and angles of Derek’s face, lifting from the Yves Klein Blue of the background, the colour he thought heaven would be. The sky outside on this late, September afternoon matching it perfectly. A slice of heaven wrapping round the cottage, falling into the sea on the far horizon.
It was the most beautiful place I have ever been. It was everything I wished and more. It gave me such joy, proper, fizzing joy like a shaken up bottle of pop. I talked too much, asked too many questions, over shared with everyone hugely and then got in the car and burst into tears for twenty minutes straight.
The best words I can think of to describe the whole experience are luminous and magical.
Derek was a collector of hag stones. A hag stone is a stone that has a hole all the way through it. In folklore they are supposed to be lucky. Good things come to you through the hole in the stone, and bad things can’t pass through. They are thought to ward off witches and some people believe that you can see through the hole into other worlds and dimensions.
Prospect Cottage has a great many hag stones. They are displayed singly or threaded onto ropes like necklaces and garlanded in every room. I mentioned that I had never, in all the years I had been coming to Dungeness, found a hag stone on the beach, although I’ve found them in other places. One of the guides said: ‘You’ll find one today. I know you will.’
After I’d finished crying and we had gone for a restorative stomp across the beach I found five. I kept two and we detoured to Derek and Keith’s grave on the way home and left the other three in their safe keeping as a thank you. It seemed apt to pass on some magic to someone who has been so generous in giving it to me for all these years.