For years I’ve wanted to visit prospect Cottage. It is a small, wooden fisherman’s shack, lovingly habited by artist and LGBTQ+ activist Derek Jarman during the final stage of his life. Here he lived, and crafted, a beautiful space for himself, following his AIDS diagnosis in 1986.
There’s something deeply compelling about the bleakness of the Dungeness landscape in which Prospect cottage sits. Something which I instantly fell in love with. The raw connection to landscape and the elements is intoxicating, and something hard to replicate.
I spent a number of nights, staying on the Dungeness headland. Walking the shingle, collecting Hagstones, and watching as the wind and rain battered at the windows. Everything seemed to work in extremes here. Blazing sun rises welcome in the early morning, to almost immediately enshrine the shore in a veil of mist. The stoic lighthouse sits immediately in front of our window and offers a strange rhythmical comfort.
The infamous garden at Prospect cottage is every bit the wonder that its reputation precedes. I don’t much like the term ‘gardening’. It sounds twee and like something only your parents do. It doesn’t do justice to the connection between hands and earth. Sculpting nature, collaborating with the wild. Its every bit a creative process, medicinal and absolutely fundamental to my well-being. Without it, things feel off balance, and look out of order. At Prospect Cottage, It is acutely obvious how Jarman used his garden as a place to heal the irreparable.
It was the space beyond the front door which took me by surprise. I had no expectations of what I might see....And then it hit me, like a tonne of bricks. I got all hot and felt my eyes swell. I wasn’t expecting such an emotional response to anything there.
A small painting on the wall held pieces of glass, hand scrawled with words. Words scrawled with a rusty nail. Words which spoke a poem to god. If there were a choice, Jarman implored God, then could he please go to hell. And if the almighty insisted on reincarnation then “please promise me that I will be queer”.
As Claire, our guide, explained; these works were made for no one else. They were purely an emotional response by Derek to his circumstance. An outpouring of emotion and a deeply personal one at that. Hung in his bedroom. It felt almost strangely overwhelming and voyeuristic to experience. Jarman was atheist, but very much drew from the pageantry and symbolism of religion.
The painting was part of Jarman's Black Period, following his AIDS diagnosis, expressing his anger and despair, but also his lasting humour.
In that moment, decades of overt and unspoken inequalities hit me. Not just from the horrific pain suffered by the LGBTQ+ community through the 80’s and earlier, but also from my own lifetime. Growing up under Section 28 and the heteronormative path society tries to push you down. Many deeply painful experiences in coming to terms with being yourself, and how others simply can’t accept that. These emotions are deep seeded, and often pushed deep down somewhere dark, so an experience like this one crept up and took me by surprise.
Prospect Cottage is an exquisite experience. The religious artefacts (carefully) placed throughout the house, and alter-like arrangement of hand built deity from found objects, made the whole experience much more pilgrim-like than ever expected. A pilgrimage of creativity, nature, raw emotions, coming to terms with life and death, with the inequalities of life, queerness, love, joy and sadness. All these things, I realise, find a place within my work. Not overtly, but subtly. When I create, I do so from my own intersectional lens. My upbringing, identity, passions and pain all channel into my work. In the past, I have tried to push these things away, worrying that their inclusion may exclude or somehow make the work inaccessible to some. Now I realise it is these that are most important.
My visit to Prospect Cottage made me remember that art can be for you. Not the commissioners, clients, funders, buyers or audiences. It can be a deeply personal act which releases you. And in speaking this truth, other too will find solace.
There are many more stays at Dungeness ahead. The landscape and feeling that it evokes are intoxicating and quite addictive. The place makes me want to create, read, listen and drink-in every bit that it has to offer.