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THE REAL DIRT ON: The Real Dirt on Derek Jarman

Image courtesy of Gorup de Besanez.

By Carol Buckley.

One of the best-loved gardens in Great Britain reaches out to the English Channel seemingly at the wild edge of the world on the Dungeness headland in Kent. The garden of Prospect Cottage, one of several timber-and-tar fisherman houses, belonged to the iconic British filmmaker, painter, and costume and set designer Derek Jarman, who worked with, among others, Ken Russell, Tilda Swinton, Adam Ant, and Judi Dench.

Jarman captured the imagination of British art film lovers beginning in the 1970s, but it was his baroque response to the government’s tightening of controls on free expression—and his refinement of the pop music video—in the 1980s that captivated a generation in rebellion. A self-described “controversialist,” he was also one of the first public figures in Britain to announce he was HIV positive, a brave move at the time.

Jarman’s diagnosis sent him back to the passion of his youth. As the son of a Royal Air Force pilot, he had lived wherever his father was stationed, including exotic places—like Italy, Pakistan, and Rome—and also in Somerset, where as a boy he spent rainy days poring over the color plates in Beautiful Flowers and How to Grow Them. After attending a brutal boarding school (a common rite of passage for any affluent English lad born in 1942), he studied at King’s College in London and later came into his own at University College London's Slade School of Fine Art.

Jarman was able to create great beauty—his 1986 movie, Caravaggio, replicated the dramatic chiaroscuro of the painter’s works. Simultaneously, he added hints of the anachronistic (including a calculator and typewriter in 17th century Milan) and worked miracles with the materials at hand. This facility is evident in the garden at Prospect Cottage, bought on a whim in the late 1980s.

Loading up on manure, Jarman dug into the pebbles of what the British call the shingle beach and staked a rose without hope of its survival. To his surprise, the rose grew and he witnessed other plants, such as Crambe maritima (sea kale), punctuating the grey expanse. It turned out that for some plants, the hot, sun-bleached gravel hides a moist gestational environment below.

Prospect Cottage, where Jarman lived,  played, and experimented in his garden.

Soon, Jarman was scanning the area to see what else thrived. He branched out, and to the endemic plants he added wildflowers, such as California poppies, scabious, valerian, and wild orchids scavenged in France. He concentrated this pop of color at the center of his garden, which knew no boundaries and trailed toward the sea. To this play of light and dark, he added beached detritus, even creating a “stone” circle from recovered flint that mimicked the towers of the nearby nuclear power plant.

The seasonal variability of the garden was as playful as its creator. One observer noted that in summer, the annuals were riotous, and in dour months only the gorse, echoed in the yellow accents on the cottage, gave color.

Jarman died in 1994 of complications from AIDS, leaving behind brilliant films, extensive diaries, his partner, Keith Collins, and his garden. He also left behind in his last book, Derek Jarman’s Garden, co-created with photographer Howard Sooley, further proof that his garden was a labor of love and an erudite and poetic response to the environment.

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