Planted in Sickness, Derek Jarman’s Garden Still Gives Joy

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 off-kilter by a nuclear power plant that looms in the background.

The house, called Prospect Cottage, was home to the British filmmaker, artist and activist Derek Jarman, a prominent figure in avant-garde London circles from the 1970s to the ’90s. 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, like 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 H.I.V. and at the height of the panic over the virus, Jarman spoke publicly about his diagnosis and became a leading voice of AIDS activism. The same year, he bought Prospect Cottage for 32,000 pounds, or about $48,000 at the time, 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 fund-raising campaign, led by the Art Fund, a British charity, raised about $4 million, and Creative Folkstone, a local arts organization, 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 actress 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.”

The campaign raised the funds in just 10 weeks, with more than 8,000 crowdfunding donations, and substantial contributions from trusts and foundations, and 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 $20,000.

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,” said 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.

Creating “made him happy and kept him sane,” Powell said. “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, said, “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.

“Gardening carries you to a fundamental place of living, rather than doing,” Sooley said. “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, said in a telephone interview that gardens were “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 said. “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 added. “That’s the mystery of gardens.”

Stephen Deuchar, who ran the Art Fund campaign and is a trustee of Creative Folkestone, said by phone 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 said.

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

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,” noted the author Olivia Laing, 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 said in an email. “When you don’t know how much time you have left, that sense of planting something that will flower next summer is immensely sustaining.”

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