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Please note: RPS House is closed for our exhibition install. We will be open again from 10am on Friday 9th August 2024.

Derek Jarmans House Gilbert Mccarragher Garden Ext 746 C1 (2903)

How I photographed Derek Jarman’s home

He has worked for architects and designers around the globe, but photographing the cottage of artist and film-maker Derek Jarman was a whole different world. Gilbert McCarragher explains why

‘The sun sets behind Prospect Cottage towards Lydd’ by Gilbert McCarragher

Gilbert McCarragher had been intrigued by an invitation to capture the interiors and atmosphere of the coastal home of acclaimed British film-maker, artist and gay rights activist Derek Jarman.

Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Folkestone, had been Jarman’s sanctuary and workspace as he conceived such films as The Garden (1990) and Caravaggio (1986), both featuring Tilda Swinton in the cast. The space he had cultivated on the shingle beach outside the cottage was world-renowned, but the home he had shared with – and left to – his long-time companion Keith Collins remained closed to the public after Jarman’s death in 1994.

In an extract from his book, Prospect Cottage: Derek Jarman’s House, McCarragher describes the challenges of photographing the film-makers home – itself an artwork. He also explains how the coastal house and garden gave him a glimpse into Jarmans soul.

Derek Jarmans House Gilbert Mccarragher Garden Ext 745 (1095To1096)

‘Prospect Cottage from above’ by Gilbert McCarragher

Having paced out the house and come up with something of a plan for photographing it, I set about preparing the space. I began by taking down the net curtains from the windows of the four principal rooms. I gather these had been hung by Keith as a second line of defence for when the tiny note he had placed on the front door was overlooked.

Keith’s petite note informed visitors that they were welcome to enjoy the garden but asked them not to look through the windows. All too often it went unseen or was ignored, as people tried awkwardly to peer through the nets. I must confess, on long-past trips to Dungeness as an art student, to having pressed my nose against the windows in an attempt to do the same.

I had always been puzzled by the net curtains. They made the house feel cocooned and inward-looking. But I also understood Keith’s desire for privacy – curtains a necessary reality given the scrunching footfall that regularly echoed around the sculptural shingle garden outside. Derek had written about how Keith’s privacy had suffered as a result of living with him, and even when I was working at Prospect on my own, I felt the entire time as though I had company.

Derek Jarmans House Gilbert Mccarragher Hallway 409 (6424)

‘Elder, planted directly opposite the entrance, said to keep witches from the house’ by Gilbert McCarragher

There was no space on the kitchen table for my camera gear when I arrived. Usually clear, it was piled high with unopened mail. Most of the accumulating mass was familiar to me as mail I also receive on the estate: bills, pizza brochures, double-glazing offers. I also spotted the elongated envelope that contained the calendar sent to residents each year by the neighbouring Dungeness power station.

The station’s annual calendar delivery was a running joke for many residents on the estate, and something Keith and I had laughed about on occasion. Its annual arrival was met with remarks that one of the twelve photographs of Dungeness wildlife it contained might be the last thing we would ever see. The same mocking laughter was directed at the box of iodine pills that came with the calendar, which it advised were to be taken in the event of a nuclear emergency.

The utility of heeding the advice, should disaster strike, underpinned the dark jokes that followed. Unlike my own, similar pile, intermingled with these were many handwritten letters and postcards, from Jarman fans around the world. Each recalled how much the sender had loved their visit to Prospect Cottage, what a special place it was, what Derek’s work meant to them and how he had changed their lives.

Derek Jarmans House Gilbert Mccarragher Springr 311 (8432)

‘Driftwood staves, or sentinels, stand in the corners – atop one sits the puppet Twinkle in the Eye’ by Gilbert McCarragher

These strangers’ words triggered a memory of my own earliest encounter with Derek’s work, as a gay Protestant teenager growing up in Northern Ireland in the wake of MP Reverend Ian Paisley’s ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign. Paisley ultimately failed in his despicable crusade to prevent the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but that’s not to say he didn’t poison the well.

I spent my secondary school years hiding from others for fear that anyone noticed I was different. For years I thought that this closeted existence was what life would be like for me, until one night, aged 15, hidden away in my bedroom, I saw Sebastiane (1976) on Channel 4. I knew nothing of Derek Jarman before that night, but his film ran contrary to the mainstream narrative of the time and helped me see that there might be a different path for me.

Derek Jarmans House Gilbert Mccarragher Gardenr 157 (1225)

‘Garden room, Prospect Cottage’ by Gilbert McCarragher

It was the first time I had seen any expression of the physical and emotional bonds of same-sex desire, and there it was on mainstream television, showing me that being gay could actually be okay – something even to be proud of. The film ripped through the world of hatred, bigotry, sectarianism, homophobia and religious intolerance I had grown up with. As the small television in my bedroom flickered with intense love and poetry, the darkness and shame I had lived with was driven out. I will forever be grateful to Derek for that.

As I tidied up Keith’s post, I drew parallels in my mind between my experience watching Sebastiane in Northern Ireland some 33 years earlier and my taking down of the net curtains at Prospect Cottage now. Hard shadows were unavoidably created, but letting the bright sunlight in illuminated overlooked corners and revealed treasures that had previously gone unnoticed, ready to be explored.

Derek Jarmans House Gilbert Mccarragher Bedr 058 (3496To3498)

‘Bedroom, Prospect Cottage’ by Gilbert McCarragher

With the nets down and light streaming into each of the cottage’s four principal rooms, I felt like I was standing inside a giant camera that had just had its lens cap removed. Framed views of the world outside beamed through the cottage’s windows, projecting onto its walls, ceilings and floors. I set up my own camera and began photographing each room.

Prospect Cottage: Derek Jarman’s House, with words and pictures by Gilbert McCarragher, is published by Thames and Hudson at £25.

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