Garden Visit: Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage at Dungeness

January 01, 2015 11:00 AM

BY Kendra Wilson

The space around this modest cottage in Dungeness, Kent, the former home of the multitalented filmmaker Derek Jarman (1942-1994), could be considered one of England’s best-loved gardens. The property is not open to the public, nor is it closed; visitors are free to wander. “The garden is the landscape,” says Jarman’s friend, the photographer Howard Sooley. “It ends at the horizon.”

Photographs by Howard Sooley.

Above: In 1991 Howard Sooley was assigned by a magazine to photograph Jarman, and the two struck up a close friendship. They went on to produce a seminal book together, Derek Jarman’s Gardendescribing a whole new kind of garden. The book was published just after Jarman’s death 20 years ago.

Jarman’s reputation as an artist is so tied in with his remarkable garden these days that it’s worth recalling that he was also a hugely influential film director, stage designer, author, and diarist. His early film work was closely allied with that of Tilda Swinton, who appeared in his best-known film, Caravaggio, released in 1986. He lived in a flat over the Phoenix Theater on London’s Charing Cross Road but increasingly, in later years, he sought out the otherworldly coastal headland of Dungeness.

Above: “It’s not often that you find a garden on such a small scale that is so at ease with the world,” says Sooley. “It’s not an artist’s garden that’s trying to be clever.” Posts like these are markers for plants that die down in winter. They also provide height–and perches for migratory birds. 

Above: Sooley says that visitors are “ecstatic” upon seeing the garden, especially when they come under an English blue sky. And they do visit, particularly on holidays. Even without the garden’s reputation, the lines from a poem (“The Sun Rising,” by John Donne) embossed on the side of the house guarantee that passersby will always stop.

Above: The garden is full of wildflowers introduced by Jarman. Shown here: wild poppy, pale blue Devil’s-bit Scabious, dark red Valerian.

Above: The coastal plants that thrive in the garden are those that naturally migrate toward shingle (a British term for a pebbled shore). They’d flop in a well-tended border, but here they’re stronger and tighter; “the more perfect version,” as Sooley puts it.

Above: You want structure? Here it is, but you won’t find a garden gate or perimeter fence. “There’s something special about the fact that this is a small cottage,” says Sooley. “It’s a small-scale domestic garden that’s about wanting to garden.”

Above: Opium poppy in a more interesting shade than the usual sugary pink. “The plants carry the meaning of the garden,” says Sooley. “The way they sit in the shingle tells the story.”

Above: A Sooley portrait of Jarman, in gardening mode. The garden has moved on since Jarman’s death, but not in a big way. Sooley still comes for a few days to tend it, and Jarman’s partner Keith, who lives there, pulls out any unwanted grasses. Unlike so many British gardens, it’s not about preserving what once was.

For more Sooley collaborations, see Bounty From a North London Allotment. And on Remodelista, see House Call: A Ceramic Artist’s Enviable Life on the Scottish Coast.