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Derek Jarman & Prospect Cottage: the queer potential of gardening

Derek Jarman (English & Art, 1963) is a notable figure in queer history as a filmmaker and gay rights campaigner. To mark Pride Month and in celebration of our diverse alumni community, we explore Jarman’s work as a gardener towards the end of his life.

The renowned filmmaker, artist, writer and general multi-hyphenate creative graduated from King’s in 1963 with a degree in English & Art. He started off his career as a painter and stage designer before getting a break in the film industry as a production designer on The Devils (1971), directed by Ken Russell.

He went on to become a director and is known for his radical portrayals of queer stories and aesthetics in films like Sebastiane (1976), Jubilee (1978) and Caravaggio (1986). In a time when homosexuality was not just frowned upon socially and politically, but was criminalised, Jarman’s films and artwork were a vital resistance.

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In 1986, he was diagnosed HIV positive, and became one of the first British public figures to speak openly about the condition. Prior to his diagnosis, he had protested Margaret Thatcher’s Britain in a series of paintings entitled GBH, which demonstrated a punk rebellion against life under such constrictive conditions. His film The Last of England (1987) was a further angry kick against Thatcher, protesting the infamous Section 28 legislation that banned local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’.

After his diagnosis, he bought Prospect Cottage in Dungeness. The cottage sits on the Kent coast, between the Dungeness nuclear power station and the beach. The power station looms omnipresent from Prospect Cottage, visible from inside looking out. Between a nuclear power station and what is mythologically referred to as Britain’s only desert (technically Dungeness receives more than the required 250ml or less of annual precipitation, but the myth has persisted even since the Met Office dispelled it in 2015), Jarman cultivated a garden that is remarkable for its vitality, its idiosyncrasies, and particularly its rebellion: for existing in a place where it shouldn’t, much like Jarman himself as a queer body in 1980s Britain under a Conservative government.

He bought Prospect Cottage in the year of his HIV diagnosis and when his films were hauled into a discussion on censorship led by the Film and Television Viewers and Listeners Association. It has been much discussed in critical writing on Jarman’s work and life as a place of restoration and repair, as well as defiance and rebellion. He planted native species, decorated the garden with upstanding shingle arranged into henges, stuck telegraph poles into the ground. The garden is an inherently queer space for Jarman because it demonstrates an ill body, a queer body, taking up space in the face of a terminal illness, and also in a world that is determined that he, and bodies like him, don’t exist. His partner at the time of his death, Keith Collins, told researcher Michael Charlesworth that he thinks Jarman planted the garden to attract boys. Though initially spurious, there is something in that: Jarman was fascinated with Fire Island, the beach refuge for New York’s gay community; and as noted by Luke Turner in his memoir Out of the Woods, Jarman relished and celebrated the British gay male tradition of cruising, turning outdoor spaces like Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath into sites of queer sex and pleasure.

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Prospect Cottage is still a site of pilgrimage for Jarman’s fans and those interested in the mythology that has sprung up around him. They demonstrate an important, subtle queering of space and of England itself at a time in British history that was particularly hostile to the LGBTQ+ community. Jarman’s film The Garden, filmed at Prospect Cottage and released in 1990, is a loose, meandering work that laces together the story of Christ’s crucifixion where the Christ figure is replaced by a gay male couple. It ponders what it means to be queer in twentieth century Britain, and features Jarman’s musings on his HIV diagnosis and Section 28.

Far from being tangential to his activism and art, Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage is a focal point of it. It proved to be fertile ground for his creativity and allowed him new channels for expressing his protest against Thatcher and her homophobic policies. Though he only lived there for the last six years of his life, Prospect Cottage is a lasting testament to a man who made such a quiet impact on Britain and LGBTQ+ rights.

Derek Jarman is one of our notable alumni. Discover more about our notable alumni and how they are selected by clicking here.

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Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman

Film-maker and gay rights campaigner

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