Derek Jarman | A weekend at Prospect Cottage

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Famed fashion-world art director, founder of the Museum of British Folklore and director of the Museum of Witchcraft, Simon Costin heads to Dungeness to stay in an art world icon – Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage
Derek Jarman | A weekend at Prospect Cottage

It must have been around midnight when it happened. I had clambered into bed while my partner, stripping off to join me, was navigating the room with a torch. Suddenly a bright beam shone through the curtains, illuminating white naked buttocks. There came a sharp rap at the window. We froze. Clothes were hastily thrown on and the door answered to two concerned but sheepish policemen. “Erm, we saw a light moving about so just wanted to check everything was OK?”

It’s good to know that the police in Dungeness are alert to anything suspicious happening at Prospect Cottage, former home of the filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman. It is a national treasure.

Listening to Derek talk about Dee’s magical practice made me first ponder the web of magical influence which spreads out just beneath the known world

I was lucky enough to have been taught by Derek whilst at Wimbledon School of Art, where he was a part time lecturer. When I left college I went on to be his on-off assistant, melting smelly rabbit skins for glue to prime canvases, and appearing obliquely in several of his films. Derek was an extraordinary man who I could listen to for hours. It was Derek who first introduced me to the life and work of the Elizabethan mage, Dr John Dee. Dee appears at the beginning and end of Derek’s film, Jubilee, which I had first seen in 1980 at an all-nighter at the Scala Cinema in what was then a very seedy Kings Cross.

Listening to Derek talk about Dee’s magical practice made me first ponder the web of magical influence which spreads out just beneath the known world and can be tapped into by those willing to open their minds to it. That interest in the Arts Magical has stayed with me throughout my life and informs my own practice on many levels.

Dungeness

Dungeness is perhaps the most magical and unique landscape in Britain. It has one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world, and is home to over 600 different types of plant and many rare insects, moths, bees, beetles and spiders. To the west sits the huge humming edifice of the nuclear power station. Running from north to south is the charming Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch miniature railway, with its immaculately kept steam trains, one third the size of normal ones but no less impressive. In the middle of this sparse, unearthly landscape is Prospect Cottage, a small tarred timber house which Derek bought in 1986. I remember him describing his ongoing battles with the elements as he struggled to maintain the area of garden surrounding the house, and how the biting frosts and winds of the UK’s only desert would blight varieties of flora and fauna he tried to introduce.

I visited the cottage only once during Derek’s lifetime and then again after his memorial service, when his partner Keith Collins invited a group of us back there. After my first visit I left with a gift – a large string of holed stones that Derek had collected from the beach and which now hang on the back of my front door for protection.

Last summer I visited and stayed for the weekend. I was expecting nothing to have changed and yet, even in such a timeless location, change was everywhere. The garden sculptures that Derek had created were looking bare, due to callous trophy hunters denuding his “dragon’s teeth” standing stones of their beachcombed details. Stolen, too, were some of the wooden letters making up the John Donne poem The Sun Rising which Derek had applied to one side of the cottage:

Busie old foole, unruly Sun,

Why dost thou thus,

Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?

Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide

Late school-boys and sour prentices,

Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,

Call country ants to harvest offices;

Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,

Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time

 

The Sun Rising on the side of Prospect Cottage

New money was very much on view in Dungeness this time. A number of the cottages I remembered had been totally demolished, replaced by modernist glass structures visited only infrequently by their wealthy owners. One particularly sad moment for me was finding that the wonderful old café at the end of the railway line had gone, replaced by a much larger new structure that lacked the original’s charm. Many moons ago I had hired the original for my 40th birthday. Friends boarded a coach in London and disembarked in Romney to be met by a host of ladies bearing trays of sweet or dry sherry. By the time we boarded the Green Goddess train down to Dungeness and the café, a thick sea mist had rolled in, totally obscuring the landscape: friends believed I had arranged a whole series of smoke machines stretching along the coast.

Prospect Cottage, by Simon Costin

Internally, Prospect Cottage remains largely unaltered. Until recently, it was very much lived in by Jarman’s partner Keith. Sadly, Keith passed away at the age of just 52 in September – the same age that Derek left us 24 years ago. Both far too young. When I visited the year before, it felt in no way shrine-like. Of course the spirit of Derek – and now Keith – is woven throughout the fabric of the place: Derek’s desk and specially made furniture are still in his study, and a convex mirror hanging on the opposite wall gives a distorted reflection of a beautiful icon of the Madonna and Child from Chernobyl, which he bought from a Russian power station worker.

The atmosphere when we arrived last summer was incredibly peaceful, the light permeating the place from all sides. At night the sky was stunning, with a full array of stars dropping away to where the power station glowed. During the day we were surprised by how territorial we became, due to the shameless way in which people would just loom up at the windows to squint in at us. At least when the police did it they had the best of intentions – and the best of views. C