Derek Jarman knew exactly what he wanted when he bought a former fisherman’s house on the windswept shingle beach at Dungeness on the southern tip of Kent, its near neighbour a looming grey nuclear power station. ‘The bleakness of Prospect Cottage was what had made me fall in love with it,’ he explained in the posthumously published Derek Jarman’s Garden (1995), which, with its lovingly intimate photographs by Howard Sooley, acts as an exquisite record of the cottage and its ruggedly beautiful garden. ‘I had been struck by the area’s otherworldly atmosphere – unlike any other place I had ever been – and the extraordinary light.’ The artist and filmmaker paid GB£32,000 for the cottage in 1986. A campaign launched last week by Art Fund now hopes to raise GB£3.5 million to purchase the building and secure its future.
Jarman died from AIDS-related illnesses in 1994, bequeathing Prospect Cottage to his partner, Keith Collins. With Collins’s subsequent death in 2018, it is now being sold, with the possibility of a private sale. Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar believes this must be avoided. ‘It’s imperative we come together to save the cottage, its contents and its extraordinary garden as a source of creative inspiration for everyone,’ he noted in a statement published on Art Fund’s website on 22 January. The tiny cottage is, Deuchar adds, ‘a living, breathing work of art, filled with the creative impulse of Derek Jarman at every turn’.
Artist Jeremy Deller – who along with Michael Craig-Martin, Tacita Dean, Isaac Julien, Howard Sooley and Wolfgang Tillmans has produced a limited edition ‘reward’ for an Art Fund-instigated crowdfunder – expresses a similar sentiment. ‘It’s like stepping inside his brain, almost,’ he tells me. ‘I’d been to Dungeness a few times and seen it from the outside. Then, just before Christmas, I was lucky enough to be able to go inside and take a look around. It’s like he just walked out. It’s a terrible cliché, in a way, but you do have a total sense of him living there […] It’s not a reconstruction, it’s the real thing. It’s a place of pilgrimage, really.’
Having visited Prospect Cottage a few summers ago, to me it feels as much a part of Jarman’s legacy as his films, writing and paintings. There’s a stubborn, contradictory beauty about the isolated, sparsely populated headland of Dungeness that Jarman channelled and enriched. It’s embodied in both his garden and in what his friend and collaborator Tilda Swinton describes as the ‘small black-painted wooden house with yoke-yellow window frames’. Swinton – who appeared in a number of Jarman’s ferociously singular, joyously inventive films, including Caravaggio (1986) and the Dungeness-filmed The Garden (1990) – was with the filmmaker in 1986 when he first saw his soon-to-be new home. ‘Life on Charing Cross Road [in central London] had become somewhat overstimulating and Derek was looking for a place to be quieter,’ she explained during the launch of the campaign at London’s Slade School of Art. ‘He made of this wee bungalow an artwork – and, out of its shingle skirts, an ingenious garden […] But, first and foremost, the cottage was always a living thing, a practical toolbox for his work.’
The notion of Prospect Cottage as a site of creation – a place of artistic activity, thinking and doing – is integral to the plans for it should the money be raised by the 31 March deadline. Through a partnership between Art Fund, Creative Folkestone and Tate, as well as ensuring free public access to the garden and guided visits of the cottage itself, it will become home to a series of artists’ residencies. Jarman’s archive in the cottage, which includes artworks, sketchbooks and more, will be looked after by Tate and made available to public view at Tate Britain.
For many years, Prospect Cottage has drawn visitors who would circle this curiously evocative site from a respectful distance, feeling both at the end of the world and somehow within touching distance of Jarman’s uncompromising spirit. If the campaign is successful – with two months to go, it is just over half funded – preserving the uniqueness of the building and garden without impinging on its strange and contradictory context will need a sure hand and light touch. As Collins wrote in the preface to Derek Jarman’s Garden: ‘Dungeness is a magical location. When you visit, tread softly, for many choose to live here for the solitude and silence that once attracted Derek, and now holds me.’
Main image: Prospect Cottage, 2019. Courtesy: © Art Fund and Howard Sooley