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October 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1411

Derek Jarman: My Garden’s Boundaries are the Horizon

Reviewed by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan

Garden Museum, London (4th July–13th December 2020)

Earlier this year Derek Jarman’s aptly named Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, perched on a bleak shingle headland on the Kent coast, was saved for the nation. The fate of the artist, filmmaker and activist’s pitchblackened and Naples yellow cottage and its more celebrated garden is now secure (Fig.20). The ensemble has been described as ‘an inspiring example of human optimism, creativity and fortitude battling against the ravages of [an AIDSrelated] illness’.(1)

It is, of course, much more than this; indeed, it is so multifaceted that it defies easy description. The Garden Museum’s exhibition and accompanying catalogue explore one of the most appealing and possibly least understood attributes of the ensemble: its garden, and its role in Jarman’s work.(2) The exhibition is simple and evocative. The nave (the museum occupies a former church) features large-scale late works by the artist. Raw, hastily composed and expressive, painted in collaboration with his amanuenses, these canvases, part of a series that Jarman described hopefully as ‘the most awful paintings the world has ever seen’, convey humour, anger and defiance in the face of death.(3) This is counterpointed by an installation across three rooms, one of which contains a full-scale mock-up of the now very recognisable façade of Prospect Cottage, complete with a miniature shingle bank, enveloped by an immense panoramic photograph by Howard Sooley, evoking the surroundings of one of England’s most strangely forbidding stretches of coastline.

The installation conjurs vivid memories of the many hours this reviewer spent in Jarman’s company in this fisherman’s shack in the days when Dungeness was still below the radar of fashion – when there were fewer weekenders and this gay household was the subject of considerable, but not hostile, curiosity for the permanent residents. The exhibition invites visitors – most of whom will never have been inside the cottage – to get a sense of the artist’s rooms. In conversation with this reviewer, the museum’s director, Christopher Woodward, remarked that he balked at the idea of showing Jarman’s work against white walls, so opted for stripped tongue-and-groove panelling, reminiscent of the original interiors (Fig.22). This forms an austere backdrop for a modest display of Jarman’s assemblages of objets trouvés, paintings, drawings, garden journals and gardening tools; in the smallest of the rooms the artist’s Super 8 films projects grainy images of Dungeness.

This reviewer has conflicted feelings about Jarman’s garden. Though imaginative, intensely personal and novel, it was best when it was, as originally conceived, starved and forlorn. After Jarman’s death in 1994 it was incrementally embroidered with new planting and studded with new artefacts by his partner, the late Keith Collins: although complementary and in the spirit of its originator, these new layers have diluted the delicate balance of the original composition.

Much of the charm of the original garden was its gimcrack quality: it was built on a shoestring and in a hurry. Though Derek had been infatuated with plants and gardens from an early age, he embarked on building his own garden only in 1987 in the wake of his diagnosis as HIV-positive (Fig.21). He then, with characteristic energy and flamboyance, embarked upon what he described as ‘gardening on borrowed time’.(4) The difficulty he faced was how to concertina decades of dreaming into a single canvas – how to assimilate every memory, from his childhood at the Villa Zuassa on Lake Maggiore (his RAF father was commandant of Rome airport) to his stage designs for geometric topiaries, into a small, windswept, desolate plot in the lee of a nuclear power station.

It is baffling that Jarman chose to build his one and only garden (excepting a childhood rockery) in such a hostile environment and with such a wilful disregard for the local ecology (and for the bye-laws of Dungeness, which forbade the importation of material from outside the beach). His garden was from the outset an exercise in supreme and bloody minded artifice: although apparently growing wild, many of its denizens were artfully plunged into pockets of well-rotted dung beneath a mantle of the soilless shingle; its roses – musks, centifolias, and rugosas – and other exotics came from Rassell’s Nurseries in London’s leafy Pembroke Square. All this, in one of the most diverse and extensive examples of stable vegetated shingle in Europe. Jarman was, however, paradoxical in many regards: for instance, although the sea at Dungeness abounds with mackerel, see bass, dover sole, dogfish and whiting, he did not buy (or eat) local fish. Prospect Cottage was in fact in almost every regard completely disconnected from its setting – both physically and socially. It was an alien organism: Jarman had little to do with his immediate neighbours and the place was invariably thronged with visitors from London. He lived his life at Dungeness ‘à rebours’– against nature.

The art historian Tim Knox has recently and compellingly suggested to this reviewer that Jarman’s Spartan domestic arrangements at Prospect Cottage may have been inspired by Clouds Hill, near Wareham, Dorset: the diminutive forester’s cottage, hidden amongst trees, was once owned by T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) and since the late 1930s has been maintained by the National Trust as a shrine to his memory. Jarman’s interest in the unconventional writer and intelligence officer was doubtless piqued by his father’s assertion that Lawrence, whom he had once met, was ‘a peculiar man’. (5) Though Jarman pater did not approve of Lawrence, he acquired a copy of his Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), which his son affirmed was one of the ‘six books’ in his childhood home. Jarman attended school at Canford – a short distance from Clouds Hill – so it is likely he later visited Lawrence’s bolt-hole – an ‘earthly paradise’ kitted out in an uncompromisingly spare manner, its simple wooden walls sheathed with aluminium foil and cork.

What would Jarman make of his own little paradise, which, like Clouds Hill, is now in the hands of an institution (Creative Folkestone will be its custodian and its archive has been given to Tate)? In 1988 he lamented that ‘Sissinghurst, that elegant sodom in the garden of England, is “heritized” [by] the National Trust. Its magic has fled in the vacant eyes of tourists’.(6) Let’s hope Jarman’s Gomorrah fares better.

1. Stephen Deuchar, former Director of the Art Fund, quoted in S. Stephens: ‘Derek Jarman’s Kent Cottage saved for the nation’, Museum Association, 1st April 2020, available at, accessed 9th September 2020.

2. Catalogue: Derek Jarman: My Garden’s Boundaries are the Horizon. Edited by Christopher Woodward. 79 pp. incl. 27 col.+ 13 b. & w. ills. (Garden Museum, London, 2020), £25. ISBN 978–1–5272–5916–4.

3. Derek Jarman, in The Last Paintings of Derek Jarman, directed by Mark Jordan, Granada TV 1995, available at, accessed 9th September 2020.

4. H. Sooley: ‘Gardening on borrowed time’, in Woodward, op. cit. (note 2), p.40.

5. Quoted in C. Granlund: ‘Flowers and silence: Derek Jarman’s one hundred and one beautiful books’, Marxism Today 34 (February 1990), p.43.

6. D. Jarman: Modern Nature: The Journals of Derek Jarman, London 2018, p.15.