Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman's home Prospect Cottage with Dungeness power station in the background.                  Picture Hattie Miles

I only met Derek Jarman once but deeply admired his commitment as an artist. He too was inspired by Dancing Ledge and used it as the title for perhaps his most revealing autobiographical book. 

Prospect Cottage, his house on the beach  at Dungeness, became famous but only I suspect  because it seemed such an eccentric location for anyone to set up home. Yet this was Jarman dancing on the (l)edge. Here is a piece I wrote about him seven years ago quoting our mutual friend, the late Robin Noscoe, the inspirational Dorset teacher who encouraged the young Jarman’s artistic adventures. - Jeremy Miles

Words: Jeremy Miles     -    Pictures: Hattie Miles

WHEN the late film-maker, artist and writer Derek Jarman set up home in an old fisherman's cottage on the Kent coast people thought he was a romantic.

When they discovered that it was at Dungeness, on a bleak sweep of windswept shingle in the looming shadow of one of Britain's ugliest nuclear power station, they thought he must have gone mad.

For Dungeness, starkly desolate with its scrubby vegetation, ram-shackle dwellings and occasional distant serenades from the guns on the nearby Army ranges, does not appear to have much to offer.

Sure there are a few fishing boats, a couple of lighthouses (one working, one not), a pub and a funny little train that chuffs daily backwards and forwards across Romney Marsh to the town of Hythe.

But not much else...until that is you start really looking, when you discover its compelling beauty, it changing light and extraordinary stillness.

Which is why, for generations, this remote corner of Kent has attracted those in search of a certain kind of solitude and beauty.

Derek Jarman made Dungeness his home in 1986, just six months later he was diagnosed as being HIV positive.

The astonishing garden he created at Prospect Cottage - the simple fisherman's cottage he bought on a whim - is still there.

It has been kept by Jarman's partner Keith Collins (known always as HB) in memory of the strange and beautiful environment that the artist held so dear.

Seven years after Jarman's death from AIDS, it remains an extraordinary sight. Dog roses, sea-kale, gorse, cistus and poppies clinging to life, defying the elements to stand among the sculptures and constructions that Jarman created from flints, shells, bones and driftwood, anything given up by the sea.

Not only is it a work of art but also a powerful metaphor for Jarman's own final illness-racked years. Here you can see life clinging to hope against all odds surrounded by beautiful but unusual creations.

To this day thousands of visitors make the journey to Prospect Cottage each year. Many of them have probably never seen one of Derek Jarman's paintings and may know little about his extraordinary film-work. But they do know about the little garden.

It would be nice to think that after feeling the presence of the great man - for it is still tangibly there at Prospect Cottage - they might start looking at the hugely diverse body of work that he produced.

The paintings, the writings, the stage designs, the astonishing sets he created for Ken Russell's The Devils or the films he made like Jubilee, Caravaggio, The Last Of England, Edward II, Wittgenstein and of course The Garden.

Jarman welcomed visitors with utmost courtesy. He loved the way they stood in wonder before the old iron and driftwood sculptures, the stone circles and plants that surrounded his home.

But then he had first-hand knowledge that the very essence of teaching others comes from sharing one's enthusiasms.

Derek Jarman came from an unlikely background for one of Britain's most original and radical artists. He was the son of an RAF officer and educated at Canford School near Wimborne.

He hated the school regime with its starched shirts, prefects, bullying and cadet corps drills. Yet Canford also provided the young Jarman with the inspiration he needed to become an accomplished artist.

For he literally escaped into the artroom where he found a mentor in the form of Robin Noscoe, the school's inspirational head of art.

In his autobiography, Dancing Ledge, Jarman wrote of the liberation he found under the guidance of Noscoe, a man who he described as running his art department with "a delightful absent-minded shrewdness". He had never met a grown-up so openly enthusiastic and in love with his work before.

Jarman painted and painted and painted, and when he was not painting he helped Noscoe and his wife build their own home. To this day it contains a door that the young Derek Jarman carved and painted with quotations from Chaucer.

Robin Noscoe, now 82, remembers Jarman as: "a boy with a fire in his belly about everything he did. It was obvious he would go on to do something in the visual arts."

Canford, he admits, must have at first seemed, appalling to the young Jarman. "He was in a rather hearty sports- playing house that didn't really appreciate anything that he had to contribute."

Thankfully he found the creative liberation he needed in Noscoe's art room.

      (This piece is adapted from an article that was originally published in the Bournemouth Echo in 2001)

© Jeremy Miles 2022