Great Expectations

Prospect Cottage, with John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” (1633) excerpted on the facade. All photographs: Hanneke Skerath.

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with the work of Derek Jarman was imageless. Or more precisely, it was sonorous: The artist voiced a text that was at once a celebration and a lament of a life of love and loss that accompanied a projection of pure azure: “In the pandemonium of image I present you with the universal Blue. Blue an open door to soul. An infinite possibility becoming tangible.”

This was the director’s last feature, Blue, released in 1993, less than a year before his death from AIDS. As his disease progressed, he became partially blind and his vision would frequently be overtaken by a field of blue. Blue became Jarman’s self-composed requiem. For him, the color captured the deeply moving immateriality championed by the likes of Yves Klein, for whom blue signified a profundity that existed in a realm beyond nothingness. For Klein, blue suggested a connection to sea and sky, which are, in his words, “in actual, visible nature what is most abstract.”

Jarman’s final film was on my mind in October of 2015, when my wife Hanneke Skerath and I made a pilgrimage from London to visit his modest retreat, Prospect Cottage—a historic Victorian fisherman’s hut located on the Kentish coastal village of Dungeness amid the miles and miles of shingle beach that form what some people claim is the only geographical desert found in the United Kingdom. Hanneke and I had learned of Prospect Cottage while researching gardens; Jarman had lovingly created an elegant if rough-and-tumble garden in the shingle surrounding the house using flotsam and jetsam brought to the shore as well as a variety of hearty and colorful wildflowers that fare exceptionally well in the atypical geomorphology of the region.

A tabletop at Prospect Cottage.

Prospect Cottage was a refuge for Jarman, a place where he wrote, painted, and spent quiet creative time away from the bustle of his London base, both alone and with friends and creative collaborators. Jarman’s producer, James Mackay, was kind enough to put me in touch with the filmmaker’s longtime companion, Keith Collins, who inherited and took care of Prospect Cottage after his friend’s death and until his own in 2018. Collins made an extra set of keys and dropped them off in an envelope at our hotel with some basic instructions, including a security code and the name of the immediate neighbor—a working fisherman—in case we needed any help. Feeling adventurous, we decided to rent a car for what we had hoped would be a spectacular if uneventful drive out to the coast. This fantasy lasted about fifteen minutes, as our tire blew out after hitting a curb, the result of an American anxiety about staying to the left. A tow truck and large Hertz bill later, we regrouped the next day with a firm commitment to making the trek with public transportation. A train, a bus, and a hike along a cold, windswept seaside road seemed a more fitting for a pilgrimage to such a legendary site.

Prospect Cottage. All photographs: Hanneke Skerath.

Situated in this wild landscape in the shadow of two nuclear power plants, Prospect Cottage must be approached by leaving the road and strolling across the shingle through a garden populated by assemblage totems cobbled from driftwood and other found bits of detritus. These sculptures stand as silent sentinels overlooking the perennial wildflowers sown by Jarman: wild poppy, pale blue Devil’s-bit Scabious, dark red valerian. Arriving at the front door, we put the key in the lock only to find that it didn’t work. As a kind fisherman neighbor searched in vain for an extra set of keys, we were offered a cup of tea in proximity to a shipwrecked parrot that the prevailing winds had blown ashore from parts unknown. I couldn’t help but think that the key malfunction was somehow meant to put us into this convivial situation. What better way to experience Prospect Cottage than as Jarman did, living among his neighbors? After our host took the key to his workshop and filed it down, we were finally able to enter the cottage.

The sitting room.

Once inside, we spent the afternoon exploring Jarman’s haven. Walking through the cottage is a journey both through Jarman’s official and private creative life. Cabinets are filled with mementos of his prolific artistic output: slates from his films Sebastiane (1976), The Tempest (1979) and Caravaggio (1986) sit alongside notebooks from his film The Garden (1990), which was shot at Prospect Cottage. The house’s walls, tables, and countertops groan with assemblages fashioned from materials gleaned from nearby flotsam. An articulated figurine of the Incredible Hulk sits on a small stone, raging at a diminutive reclining plastic frog at his feet. Pieces of shingle with tide-worn holes are strung together into necklaces hanging on the wall. Driftwood and stones are merged into objects resembling altar pieces to some long-forgotten pagan deities. A collection of sea glass gleams in a bowl. Here reside the traces of an intellect that was confined to neither the dramaturgy of the theater nor the directorial vision of filmmaking. Jarman devoted another room to painting, a parallel interest of his recently explored in these pages. Evidence of this practice can be found all over this room, as if the artist had just put down his palette. Brushes, tubes of paint, and a stool splattered with years’ worth of color tests suggest the messy process of realizing the small, magma-like abstractions that hang throughout Prospect Cottage.

Jarman’s paintings are on display throughout the cottage.

The heart of this home is its sitting room, whose wall of windows frame the artist’s exquisitely cultivated garden and the surrounding melancholy landscape with a cinematic reach. It was here that Jarman spent his afternoons as his illness progressed, taking in the sun while writing and contemplating. Sitting on Jarman’s sofa and looking out through this window, I couldn’t help but think of both Blue and Yves Klein. Klein saw monochrome painting as an “open window to freedom, as the possibility of being immersed in the immeasurable existence of color.” Jarman’s window frames another kind of freedom, the endless life-affirming possibility that he found in the art of gardening. “The garden is the landscape,” his friend Howard Sooley once wrote. “It ends at the horizon.”

Two years after the death of Keith Collins, Prospect Cottage is now in danger of being lost. Tilda Swinton, a longtime collaborator of Jarman’s, is leading a campaign through Art Fund to raise £3,500,000 (roughly $4,529,250) by March 31, 2020, to save Prospect Cottage and its archive from private sale and preserve the grounds as a residency retreat for artists, writers, gardeners, academics, activists, filmmakers, and others. I cannot imagine a more fitting trajectory for this creative sanctuary. If this plan comes to fruition, Prospect Cottage will become not a memorial encased in amber, but an active memory. Not an ossified monument, but a breathing testament to a life still awaiting future collaborators. On parting Prospect Cottage, we looked back across the shingle garden to the facade of the house on which Jarman had installed, in hand-carved wooden typography, excerpts from John Donne’s 1633 lovers’ ode “The Sun Rising.” Its final couplet forms a kind of mission statement:

Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Jarman’s gift was not only cinematic. It was an insistence on the power of poetry to inspire and transform. With enough luck and support, Prospect Cottage will provide sanctuary to a multitude of others and allow them to continue Jarman’s journey on the shores of Dungeness.

Douglas Fogle is a writer and independent curator in Los Angeles.