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Derek Jarman's Cottage As His Final Work Of Art

Mark Amery, Host and Producer of Culture 101

As painter Claude Monet's garden and house in Giverny is to France, beloved artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman’s garden and house is, in a more contemporary fashion, becoming to England. It’s set on the dramatic shingle beach headland of Dungeness in the South East of England, in the shadow of a giant twin nuclear power station.

Coinciding with a survey of Jarman’s work in Auckland and Wellington, in a book for Thames and Hudson British photographer Gilbert McCarragher has opened the door on the previously closed off cottage. This tiny house and sculpture garden have been described as Jarman’s final and most complete work of art.

Dungeness is itself a strange windswept place, befitting an unusual magical artist. Set on a flat open expanse, a small fishing village of 99 cottages sits on the shingle, marooned from the sea.

Derek Jarman found beauty and solace here. A small community which Gilbert McCarragher has also come to reside in and love. He became good friends with Jarman’s eccentric partner Keith Collins who lovingly cared for the cottage for decades after his death.

In the book the interior of the cottage is described by art historian Frances Borzello as “an emblematic self-portrait, summing up both the complex artist and politized gay activist, as well as a creative, contemplative and brave human being.”

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Elder, planted directly opposite the entrance, is said to keep witches from the house; garlands of holey stones likewise play a protective role. Photo: Gilbert McCarragher

The artist’s garden surrounding Prospect Cottage is already a much visited attraction, an inspiration to many creative spirits, but the curtains have, until more recently, been drawn on the cottage itself.

The house is also a representation of the relationship between Jarman and Collins.

“In its essence I think it is a love story,” says McCarragher, noting the many inscriptions and gifts embedded in the house as acts of love and generosity between them.

McCarragher also compares the house to a camera. “A dark interior,” he writes, “with light coming in through various openings, at times seemingly measured and calculated by the filmmaker to reveal considered glimpses of the world outside.”

The house provides a microcosm of Jarman’s inner worldview, but also Collins' meticulousness and eccentric character. McCarragher pays careful attention to the detail of the play of light and marks on surfaces in a remarkable yet modest abode.

Jarman bought the cottage in 1986 on a visit with actor Tilda Swinton, not long before he received an HIV diagnosis. He wrote of it in 1990:

“Prospect Cottage is the last of a long line of ‘escape houses’ I started building as a child at the end of the garden: grass houses of fragrant mowings that slowly turned brown and sour; sandcastles; a turf hut, hardly big enough to turn around in; another of scrap metal and twigs, marooned on ice-flooded fields – stomping across brittle ice.”

With the gothic darkness of the house inside and the brightness of the garden outside, light reflects off the many panes of glass and mirrors, providing magic eye views of the world outside and inside. Borzello, in his introduction to the book, notes of Jarman that it reflects “a life of fascination with the kind of dark glamour expressed in his film about Caravaggio.”

The house is full of assemblages, driftwood constructions, collections and inscriptions which show the dark poetic wit of the artist.

With Derek Jarman’s death in 1994, Prospect Cottage passed to Collins. When Collins died suddenly in 2018, McCarragher, a friend and neighbour, was asked to record the interior.

That ended up happening over three years, with McCarragher describing the house as almost like a labyrinth, always changing.

There’s an intimacy in the way it was captured, reflected in both the words and images of this book, valuing every object and the changes wrought by every light and every season.

The story has a happy ending. Keith Collins was concerned about what would happen to the house and garden he so meticulously looked after, after his death. It has now passed into public care and for the first time small tours are available of the interior.

Better still, it has become an artist’s residency. It is just as McCarragher believes Jarman would have wanted it. He has found that being in this house generates creative energy. He sees it as a reactor, sitting with the giant nuclear power reactors next door.

Gilbert McCarragher is an artist and photographer based in London and Dungeness. His architectural photography is featured extensively in books and magazines. As an artist, he has exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, Victoria and Albert Museum, Institute of Contemporary Art (London), Jerwood Space and the Wapping Project.

Derek Jarman: Delphinium Days is on at the Gus Fisher Gallery 15 June - 14 September, and at Dowse Art Museum Lower Hutt (as a City Gallery Wellington hosted exhibition) 28 September – 26 January.

Prospect Cottage: Derek Jarman's House is published by Thames and Hudson.

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