Prospect Cottage: Derek Jarman’s House by Gilbert McCarragher – Review

Prospect Cottage Derek Jarman's House by Gilbert McCarrigher Review logo

By Barney Bardsley

Prospect Cottage stands in solitary splendour on the wild shingle beach at Dungeness. Its canary yellow window frames, set against the black pitch of the wooden slatted walls, make it one of the most iconic sights of our contemporary era. The strange and beautiful garden that surrounds it – packed with rusted metal structures, piles of holey stones, and clumps of vivid shrubs, herbs and flowers – is even more so.

Bought by artist and film maker Derek Jarman in the 1980s, as an escape from – and witness to – his struggle with, and eventual death from AIDS, the desolation and glory of what he created from this cottage, is simply unparalleled, and remains a work of great majesty and love.

After Derek’s death in 1994, Keith Collins, his long-term and adored partner, continued to keep the cottage and garden, in Jarman’s memory. It became a place of pilgrimage, almost deification, much to Collins’ understandable annoyance. He had net curtains put up at the windows, in an attempt to keep the snoopers at bay. But this didn’t stop people pressing their noses against the windows, in an attempt to see inside. The peering and the prying were at times relentless.

Prospect Cottage Derek Jarman's House by Gilbert McCarrigher – Review interior

image: Gilbert McCarragher

“Beauty and significance”

Now, friend and Dungeness neighbour, Gilbert McGarragher, has taken a series of pictures of the interior, to make an immaculate record of the house and its contents. The inside of Prospect is as much an artwork as the much- photographed garden, and, as such, needs to be preserved, both photographically, as well as in three dimensions. McGarrigher rises beautifully to the challenge, and, whilst it is unlikely to deter the opportunistic sightseers, this book provides a welcome resource for those who may never get to see the cottage in real life, whether inside or out.

The rooms of Prospect are a treasure trove of found objects – stones and driftwood; art materials; fabric and furniture; all selected with Derek Jarman’s painterly eye and artistic sensibility. Even the old garden implements, stacked neatly against the wall, their wooden handles worn down by years of loving use in harsh conditions, and the metal heads meticulously cleaned, become artworks of beauty and significance. For Jarman was of course an inspired gardener. And his Dungeness garden, created in the shadow of the nuclear power station, and amidst the encroaching threat of illness and death, in an era (Thatcher’s Britain) of homophobia and persecution, was – and remains – both a metaphor of defiance, as well as a work of profound and lasting loveliness.

Prospect Cottage Derek Jarman's House by Gilbert McCarrigher Review cover“Lives on and prospers”

I last visited the garden in the 1990s. It wasn’t long after Derek’s death, along with the deaths of several young friends from AIDS, in what was, in many ways, a desperate, grief-stricken era. But, walking quietly amidst the clumps of rosemary, poppy and valerian, with the desolate sea and shingle at our backs, and the jaunty yellow of the cottage windows before us, felt like a balm for the soul. A message from Jarman himself: to never give up – making gardens, art, and love.

It is a profound relief to see, from the astonishing pictures in this book, that Prospect Cottage – and garden – lives on and prospers. It has now been secured for the nation as an artistic resource, and so its future will hopefully be safe for generations to come. And even though both its occupants are now gone: their artistry, their influence – their loving vitality and their open, queer defiance – still remain, layered into the walls of the cottage, as an inspiration for us all.

‘Prospect Cottage: Derek Jarman’s House’ by Gilbert McCarragher is published by Thames & Hudson


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