Filmmaker Derek Jarman's cottage was a vital creative hub. Now Tilda Swinton is trying to save it
The late queer artist would have been 78 years old today, and there's an easy way to celebrate his birthday
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
One of the most influential and transgressive queer artists of the 20th century — filmmaker, stage designer, author and gardener Derek Jarman — would have turned 78 years old today. And there is a wonderful way we can honour him on his birthday: by helping Jarman's muse and collaborator Tilda Swinton save Prospect Cottage, which was not only Jarman's home for the last few years of his life but essentially a temple for so many like-minded artists to come and find inspiration.
Swinton made her screen debut in Jarman's 1986 film Caravaggio and would go on to star in all of the subsequent feature films he would make until he passed from an AIDS-related illness on February 19, 1994. She is part of a group of artists who have launched a campaign to save the black fisherman's cottage Jarman purchased in 1986 and then turned into an creative hub for himself and other artists. In front of it, he created an iconic garden (that remains there to this day) inspired by the surrounding coastal landscape of southeast England that itself would co-star with Swinton in Jarman's 1990 film The Garden.
"There are some places that represent something worth preserving, not, in fact, simply because they represent a past point in history and a footnote regarding a single life once lived, but because of the influence they had on that life, the working practice they made possible, the liminal energy they afforded — and might still afford — open souls seeking their nourishment," Swinton said at the campaign's launch in London last week.
At the launch, Swinton recalled that she first saw Prospect Cottage on the same day as Jarman.
"We had driven down to find a bluebell wood to shoot in: I had remembered a wide bluebell expanse in Kent from my schooldays there. We pottered down in my ramshackle little car and found the idyll now covered in concrete. A little disheartened, we headed for the coast, abandoning bluebells in search of fresh air. Derek's father had recently died and left him a small inheritance."
She recalled that life in London had become "somewhat overstimulating" for Jarman and he was looking for a place to be quieter.
"He had a friend who lived on the shingle at Dungeness," she said, "that pocket of southern England that sounded to me so tantalisingly Scottish, the 'dangerous nose', the fifth quarter of the globe...We drove along the shore road and stopped to skim flat stones like flints into the waves, pocket a few pebbles that we found with perfect holes in them, little knowing that this would be the first of a thousand afternoons for us spent in much the same way."
As Jarman and Swinton were turning to drive back to London, they saw "a small black-painted wooden house with yoke-yellow window frames on the left hand side of the road facing the sea."
"It had a 'for sale' sign stuck in the stones at its feet. I remember distinctly turning in without a word and stopping the car. We knocked on the door, were let in by the charming lady who lived there and, after a tour that cannot have lasted longer than fifteen minutes, were back on the road heading north. Derek decided before we reached Lydd that he would buy it."
The campaign to save Prospect Cottage — in partnership with U.K. fundraising charity The Art Fund — has a goal to raise the £3.5 million necessary to buy the property, pay for its upkeep and allow artists and the public to visit it. Jarman had left the cottage to his partner Keith Collins, who passed away in 2018. Since then, it has been threatened to be sold privately, which many fear would result in a loss of its contents and legacy.
"Prospect Cottage quickly became a source of both solace and intense inspiration, a kind of sanctuary but also a place of high sociability for friends and collaborators," said Stephen Deuchar, director of The art Fund, at the campaign launch in London. "More than 25 years later the garden survives, and the cottage is still filled with works of art by Jarman and his friends and admirers, including Maggi Hambling, John Maybury, Gus Van Sant, Richard Hamilton and others."
Just over half of the money has already been raised, and you can help it continue to grow by buying donated prints, objects and works by artists like Michael Craig-Martin, Tacita Dean, Jeremy Deller, Isaac Julien, Howard Sooley and Wolfgang Tillmans, ranging in value from £25 (a Jeremy Deller pin badge and sticker set) to £1,250 (an Isaac Julien limited-edition boxed set of five prints, with the artist's signature).
Swinton says that just as Jarman "was self-determinedly dedicated to process above product, to collective work, to empowering voices that might feel alienated," her excitement about the vision for Prospect Cottage lives in its projected future "as an open, inclusive and encouraging machine for the inspiration and functional working lives of those who might come and share in its special qualities" — qualities that, as a young artist, Swinton says she and many friends and fellow travellers were lucky to benefit from.
"Beyond the plaques, there are some places that offer the vision of a continued evolution as a point of encouragement and metaphysical enlightenment," she says. "I suggest that Prospect Cottage is such a place. Derek — memorably — said that he would prefer his works after his death to evaporate and disappear. For what it's worth, and in honour of the supremely contrary nature of my friend, I feel fully confident that he would be extremely enthusiastic about the generosity of this vision for the continuance of the life of his beloved Prospect Cottage as a possibility for future artists, thinkers, activists, gardeners to gain from it the practical and spiritual nourishment it lent him and for which he was — and is — eternally grateful."
You can do your part to help Swinton fulfil this mission here.