Derek Jarman’s Garden

Thames & Hudson, £16.95

ON February 19, 1994, filmmaker, painter, queer activist, diarist and gardener Derek Jarman died. He had been diagnosed as HIV Positive in 1986 at a time when it was still for the most part a death sentence. But Jarman spent those final years in the fierce act of living.

One of his consolations in that time was his garden in Dungeness. At the start of 1986, he had travelled to the edge of Kent with Tilda Swinton and his companion Keith Collins, searching for a bluebell wood to film. In the mood for fish and chips, the trio took a detour to Dungeness, with its shingle beach and nuclear power station. Spotting a fisherman’s cottage for sale Jarman decided to buy it. It was to be where he would spend much of the remainder of his time.

A garden on a shingle beach seemed, at first glance, impossible. East winds scorched foliage with sea spray. Rainfall was low. But Jarman persisted and created a flint-edged repository of sculptures and sea kale, artichokes and opium poppies. “Paradise haunts gardens, and some gardens are paradises. Mine is one of them,” he wrote.

At the start of the 1990s photographer Howard Sooley travelled down to Prospect Cottage, and a new project, Derek Jarman’s Garden, a compilation of words and pictures, began.

“Slowly the garden acquired a new meaning,” Keith Collins writes in the book’s foreword, “the plants struggling in the biting wind and Death Valley sun merged with Derek’s struggle with illness, then contrasted with it, as the flowers blossomed while Derek faded.”

It was to be the last book Jarman worked on, published the year after his death in 1995. He bequeathed the cottage to Collins. In 2018, when Collins himself died, there was a danger that Prospect Cottage might be sold until the Arts Fund purchased it after a huge crowdfunding effort earlier this year. It will now be open to the public.

Jarman and Sooley’s book remains in print all these years later.

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