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Jonny Bruce was one of four panellists who spoke at the launch of Tania Compton and Toby Musgrave’s The English Gardener’s Garden (Phaidon) in November last year, and was a good twenty years younger than his cohort on stage. As the 33-year-old head gardener at Prospect Cottage (the artist, filmmaker, writer and gardener Derek Jarman’s former home in Dungeness, Kent), Bruce spoke about its avant-garde role in the often-staid history of English gardening. Drawing on how Jarman saw plants as receptacles of meaning, myth and feeling, Bruce tells TANK about the potential of the garden as a place capable both of storing memory and of spurring ecological enrichment.

Interview by Minna CokePortrait by Rory Fuller

MINNA COKE You were already more familiar than most with Prospect Cottage before you began working there. Why did you write about the garden at university?

JONNY BRUCE I’ve been gardening since I was a teenager yet, like lots of young gardeners, I was not encouraged to think of it as a career. One summer during my history of art degree, my mum gave me a copy of Derek’s Modern Nature, the first volume of his collected journals published in 1991, which I read cover to cover. This preceded an important trip to Florence to work at the Boboli Gardens where I met Nicholas Dakin-Elliot, the head gardener at Villa la Pietra. I shared with him my anxiety about making a career in the art world with Nick, and eventually, he said, “Why not become a gardener?” 

MC Having dived into the garden through academia, was it a smooth transition from books to boots?

JB Derek’s garden was very influential because up until that point, my focus was on growing vegetables – self-sufficiency, rather than ornamental gardening. Until Prospect Cottage I’d misunderstood many gardens to be window dressing for rich people’s houses. My art history degree was full of theory, particularly with my focus on surrealism and modernism, where the work of art exists as much as an idea as an object. It was a revelation to find this same conceptual depth at Prospect Cottage.

MC What was the first garden you worked in?

JB Although I’d been gardening for quite a long time, it was always in snatched moments. I had done a lot of WWOOFing [WorldWide Opportunities for Organic Farming], a way of travelling cheaply and working on farms around the world. I spent one summer in Yorkshire helping an eccentric couple with their dream of self-sustainability. But most permanent apprenticeship schemes required a level of Royal Horticultural School training or a year in horticulture. Luckily, I made it onto a course at Aberglasney in Wales, managed by the Heritage Horticulture Skills Scheme. It has an amazing plant collection and living on site meant I was in the garden the whole time, studying and painting the plants. The head gardener, Joseph Atkins, was very supportive of my application for the Christopher Lloyd Scholarship at Great Dixter. 

MC The first time we met, we spoke about this buzz around returning to rural work forms as young people take up the challenge to produce food and fuel for a growing population with a diminishing amount of land. You mentioned a hierarchy within horticulture, the notion that growing for beauty is considered less worthy than growing for food, fuel or fibre. 

JB There are lots of people who recognise the importance of growing flowers, but many consider ornamentals to be frivolous. When people say, “The only plants I grow are useful ones,” I ask, why can’t a plant exist for its own sake? It is anthropocentric to think that the only plants we should grow serve a specific function for humans when so many plants have ecological benefits for other organisms. I recently met a group of growers who asked me what I grew. When I replied, “Ornamentals,” there was an audible intake of breath; one of them reached out, touched my arm and said, “I’m sorry”. Of course, we need to grow more food sustainably, but there is space to celebrate the biodiversity benefits of ornamentals too. If you look at biodiversity maps of the UK, the way we farm has been so detrimental to the natural world and our native insect population that biodiversity hotspots are often clustered around towns and cities, because that’s where people’s gardens contain a higher diversity of species.

MC You are now the primary gardener at Prospect Cottage. What was it like to return, but this time as part of the institution? 

JB In the beginning I approached it, as so many people do, with this real sense of reverence. People talk about visiting the cottage as a pilgrimage, and similarly, Jarman had such an influence on me at a personal level. I’d struggled to find gay role models or people in my own peer group who I related to before reading Jarman’s book. But reverence can be restrictive when you start gardening, making you fret about the big decisions. I worked alongside Keith Collins, Derek’s partner, and he was so good at puncturing the aura of preciousness. The way Keith talked about Derek and behaved around the cottage dissolved some of the myths. When he was dying of brain cancer, he asked me if I would look after the garden. That experience with Keith gave me the confidence to move forward without being overly restricted by the history of the place.

MC Can you tell me a bit more about the monthly community working weekends that you organise?

JB Tilda Swinton said that Derek’s filmmaking “had something of a school play about it”. It’s such a fun way to think about how he managed to make those films on a shoestring budget. It was almost conspiratorial. If we were going to manage the garden more formally, I had a feeling that these weekends would be something Derek would have approved of. They’re the best part of managing the garden. Following Keith’s example, I tell the students that actually, it’s hard to make a big mistake in this garden. It’s a peek behind the curtain. Derek was a great self-mythologiser – he would edit his own diaries, cross things out and rewrite passages. It’s good to understand that about him. If you are too reverential about anyone it’s dangerous, because you’re not critical enough of their ideas.

MC That’s reassuring to hear, since the passages in Modern Nature are so articulate and beautiful.

JB  I don’t know if you remember the passage describing the moment he was discovered in bed with one of the boys in his school dormitory. He describes the trauma of being hauled up in front of the school and publicly shamed. In Modern Nature, he uses the line, “they prised his hands from my tight cock and left us to shiver naked in the cold at the foot of the bed.” The language is intended to shock – but if you read Dancing Ledge (1984), another of his autobiographies, he tells the same story, but this time, he writes that “cuddling each other alleviated some of the isolation of boarding school”. He changed stories depending on what narrative he was trying to present. He has been strongly claimed by a radical left, but he was not always a firebrand radical – he was privately educated, his father was in the RAF, and he spoke with an incredibly posh accent. Quite a few critics find Jarman problematic in terms of class, and his films about punk culture like Jubilee (1978) are a bit confused because he himself was too distant from the working class. I don’t think it takes anything away from Derek – I think it makes him more interesting as an artist and a person. I think it’s also worth considering his small-c conservative traditionalism. His obsession with “Englishness”, for example, doesn’t sit very neatly alongside a left-wing agenda. 

MC You’ve mentioned relating to Jarman through also being gay. Is gardening a welcoming space, or does the industry merit some criticism?

JB Oh, horticulture is abundant with homosexuals, so the industry is very supportive. Many would consider gardening quite a feminine pastime but there is a macho aspect, a kind of old-boy, traditional attitude which resists “lefty” ideas about diversity and organic production and would rather spray everything with chemicals. There is a resistance to thinking about gardens too deeply. It makes people uncomfortable. Even if people are happy being homosexual or feminine, they don’t want their gardens to be complicated by ideas. Mostly they want gardens to be apolitical, safe, easy spaces for relaxation. Fair enough, but they can be more, as can be seen at Prospect Cottage where myth and philosophy – as well as ideas of the occult and alchemy – all inform Derek’s garden. 

MC Do you consider these ideas during the ongoing planning of the garden at Prospect Cottage?

JB Certainly these mythologies form part of the skeleton of the garden and I wouldn’t change that. It informs how we develop the garden – the newly restored vegetable beds have been converted to a medicinal apothecary’s planting to reflect Derek’s obsession with herbalism and alchemy as seen in his description of Prospect Cottage as a “pharmacopoeia”. That was relevant to his AIDS diagnosis, though mainly symbolically, since he wasn’t growing medicinal plants he believed would cure him – it was more part of his defiance. 

MC In Modern Nature, Jarman writes, “The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time – the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.” What relation exists between time and gardening?

JB The first time I read Modern Nature I copied down that very line. It describes our anxious age, where people are constantly without time, but there are certain things you can do to make more time and gardening is one of them. Your experience of time changes profoundly just walking in the garden, you become aware of the difference in nature’s rhythm but even more so when working a garden – particularly during the most mundane tasks like weeding or raking – you enter an almost automatic state. It is also a feeling I get when I paint – a powerful experience in a busy world. 

MC You also write from time to time. 

JB Yes, there are a number of writing projects in the offing, but writing is a safety net for if something happened to my body that meant I couldn’t work in the same way. I always hope to be a gardener who writes, not a writer who gardens. 

MC What’s next for you?

JB Alongside Prospect Cottage I maintain several private gardens, which I love – but for now, I am developing a plan for a plant nursery near Cirencester which consumes a lot of my time. That is my focus. ◉