Derek Jarman: Gartdener

Derek Jarman

         Film director, stage designer, author, gay rights activist, artist and gardener, Derek Jarman, was a man of many hats. Born in London, 1942 , Jarman was interested in art, poetry and stories,  he went on to study at King’s College, Slade School of Fine Art and the University College London. He directed music videos for bands such as The Sex Pistols, Pet Shop Boys, and The Smiths, while also shooting short and feature films.  While establishing himself as a film director, Derek Jarman, gave his longtime muse and collaborator, Tilda Swinton, her first role in his film Caravaggio (1986).  This is the same year that Derek Jarman was diagnosed as H.I.V. positive, with his illness causing him to leave London and move to Prospect Cottage, a converted fishing hut on the coast of Kent in Dungeness.  His paintings sometimes focused on linear compositions and geometric forms within a limited color palette, using only three colors at times (here). Later in his life, his paintings became more dark with heavy color,  paint covered the canvas in a less controlled manner and words  were scratched into or painted on, words that usually expressed his thoughts and emotions about him being ill. His illness later caused him to go blind, but it did not deter him from continuing to create more work, making a film called Blue, (click to listen while you read), consisting of a blue screen background with a soundtrack overlaying voices, sound effects, and music.

          Prospect Cottage is located in the  atmospheric surroundings of Dungeness , situated on the coast of Kent, and lays claim to having the largest expanse of shingle in the world.  It is not a place for the faint- hearted, and I am sure this is why he loved it, as it is a place for solitude, with not much around  except a few fishing huts, the continuous whistling of the wind, the ever present sea spray and the constant humming of the nearby nuclear power plant.

great dixter 1407               The  wooden cottage is a dark timber frame made slightly more enticing by the color yellow painted on windows and door frames. Seen clearly from the road, it arises like a desert mirage,  easily standing out against its stark surroundings, with much help from the candy colored garden.  The garden, limited by choices of what he was able to  grow here, uses a cast of plants content with sharp drainage and that respond well to the warmth of the stones when basking in warm  sun.  He echoes the simple color palettes of some of his earlier paintings .  The front garden is very formal and symmetrical, which lines up with the house,  and makes order of an environment that could easily be disproportionate to the vast and open surrounding landscape.  Symmetry plays a very important role in some of his works in film and this trick is seen crossing over here into the design of his garden layout.

                                              Liking the magic of surprise, he paid homage to his admiration for poetry on one side of the cottage where raised letters  bear the first stanza and the last five lines  of John Donne’s poem The Sun Rising , a love poem to the sun in which the sun is reprimanded by the poet.

The Sun Rising

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
In that the world’s contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere

John Donne

English poet and satirist

Jarman tirelessly carried found objects and flotsam from the beach and shingle dunes back to his garden, creating another layer of character in an already other worldly environment. By installing these wooden pieces upright, we see a continued correlation to his earlier paintings, in which the canvas is pierced with vertical lines painted against the horizon. This correlation is seen in the link provided earlier of his paintings (here – see Avebury Series No. 4,  Avebury Series II (1973),  Landscape, and Landscape II).  The date of completion on some of these paintings predates the design of the garden at Prospect Cottage, and though these wooden pieces are found objects that he did not create, the compositions  created in both the  paintings and garden are very similar.

      Helping to create a natural sense of divide from the garden to the landscape beyond is the yellow blooming shrub, Ulex europea, which only slightly keeps the ominous Dungeness nuclear power plant at bay. Other shrubs played a role here, specifically Santolina, Helichrysum and Ruta graveolens, all silver leafed plants that have adopted a windswept look.

            Just off in the distance, like the great land of Oz, is the Dungeness nuclear power plant. Sometimes barely visible through the fog, it reminds you of its presence with a constant humming noise.

Creating a slightly disconcerting soundtrack, the power plant, mixed with the wind and the taste of the salty air, the experience gets into your bones and gives you chills.

                                         Skeletons of old fisherman boats seemingly buoyant litter the surrounding shingle, stirring up memories of the past, causing you to wonder if there used to be more life and activity in this area at some point.  The pink blooms of Centranthus ruber and Crambe maritima, which is found  in Dungeness more than anywhere else in the world, help soften the cold harsh landscape.

        After encircling the whole of the cottage, you see the front garden again, with  Eschscholzia californica creating a carpet of blooms, reseeding enough here that it is almost considered a weed. Derek Jarman, clearly enjoying his new medium,  saw his garden as a form of therapy, even asking to leave the hospital at times when he was very sick so he could visit his garden at Prospect Cottage.  In February of 1994, Derek Jarman passed away in London due to complications of his illness.

 “Paradise haunts garden, and some gardens are paradise. Mine is one of them….”- Derek Jarman, 1942-1994

-Jimmy

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