Derek Jarman’s Dungeness Garden

Outside of King’s College London on The Strand there are a selection of photographs of notable alumni. Amongst them is Derek Jarman who is described by the KCL facade as ‘a film and stage designer, artist, writer and gay rights campaigner who studied history, English and art at King’s College London […] He is also remembered for his shingle cottage-garden in the shadow of Dungeness power station’.

I recently visited this garden along with other members of the CHH on an extremely blustery day. The beauty of Jarman’s garden blew me away along with the wind.

This garden is also the setting for Jarman’s film, The Garden, which uses religious imagery and the stark scenery of Dungeness to tell a story about gay rights, as well as one about HIV and AIDS. Jarman writes about his own battle with HIV in his autobiography At Your Own Risk.

As we drove down the long and winding road which leads to Dungeness,  I could not help but think that there is something deathly in this setting, something which allies it with terminal illness such as Jarman’s. The huge nuclear power station dominates the skyline to one side, and an expanse of sea reaches out to the other, whilst Jarman’s Prospect cottage and other lonely shacks cluster between them. It feels like travelling towards the end of the world. But although it is bleak it is simultaneously wonderfully and upliftingly beautiful.

The same can be said about Jarman’s garden itself, where sculptures made from driftwood and rusting chains encircle hardy and spiky plants, all emerging strangely from the shingle. In an article in The Observer on 17 February 2008 called ‘Derek Jarman’s hideaway’, Jarman’s friend Howard Sooley writes about his own experiences at Dungeness in Derek’s garden:

‘Those days in the garden at Prospect Cottage, with time suspended or off elsewhere bothering someone else, were as rich as days can be. Digging in the shingle, scattering seeds, cutting back the santolinas, breathing in the heavy scent of the sea kale. I can’t think of a better use for my senses and soul […]

But by the New Year of 1994 our trips to Dungeness were all but over as Derek’s strength started to fade dramatically. He had more or less taken up residence in Andrewes ward at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where fluorescent-lit days dimmed to quiet linoleum footsteps in the night, and the chirp of birds was exchanged for the ping of drip machines. […]

You can’t take life for granted in Dungeness: every bloom that flowers through the shingle is a miracle, a triumph of nature. Derek knew this more than anyone. […]’

Jarman’s garden: A bleak and haunting place where the days are ‘rich as days can be.’ A description also in keeping with the experience of living with a terminal illness given by Gillian Rose in Love’s Work, a memoir of her life’s loves as well as her battle with cancer. Here she argues that the purpose of living is to carry out love’s work, or what she calls ‘the long travail and discipline of love’ (Rose, p. 61). Although Anne Hunsaker Hawkins says that when you fall ill, ‘life in all its myriad dimensions is reduced to a series of battles against death’ [1], this certainly isn’t the case for Rose. For her, impending death does not put a stop to love’s work, if anything it injects it with a renewed vigour. She bravely pronounces, ‘so what if I die. Let me discover what it is that I want and fear from love’ (Rose, p. 69).

I found this stone on Dungeness beach.

[1] Anne Hunsaker Hawkins, Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography, (Indiana: Purdue, 1999), p. 1.


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