First photograph and scanned engraving by the present author; remaining photographs by Robert Freidus. All photographs reproduced here by courtesy of Highgate Cemetery. Click on the images for larger pictures and more information where available. See the index for the cemetery for many more views of the cemetery and its monuments.

Background

Two views of the gatehouse to the Western Cemetery, a Tudor archway with ribbed plaster vaulting flanked by two Gothic mortuary chapels, one built for Anglicans and one for Dissenters.

Highgate Cemetery, or the Cemetery of St James, Highgate, is spread out over 37 acres on the southern slope of Highgate Hill, on land originally belonging to the 17c. Ashurst House. It lies to the west and east of Swain's Lane. The main entrance to the original part, now known as the Western Cemetery, is through the gatehouse shown above, linking the two mortuary chapels — "buildings of Gothic design though laid out to a classical plan" (Weinreb et al. 391). The architect was Stephen Geary (1797-1854), founder in 1836 of the private London Cemetery Company, and his way of linking the two chapels would become the standard one. Geary was probably "as much an entrepreneur as architect" (Curl 87), eager to cater to the needs of the generally wealthier denizens of the northern part of London, now that there were already such faciities in Kensal Green in the west, and West Norwood in the south. Geary was supported by another London architect, James Bunstone Bunning (1802-1863), who was appointed as the Company's Surveyor in 1839. Both Geary and Bunning are buried in this part of the cemetery. On the other side is the more naturally landscaped woodland area of the Eastern Cemetery, a large extension opened in 1857, for which the same team was also responsible. Their landscape gardener for both sides was David Ramsay, from a Brompton nursery.

The Western Cemetery

Engraving from Knight 176, showing the Western Cemetery as it was in the early 1840s. [Scan by JB.]

Opened and consecrated in May 1839, the old Western Cemetery is by far the grander and more elegant of the two sides: every effort was made to plan around existing trees, and winding lanes lead up through another arch, between Egyptian columns and obelisks, to the Egyptian Avenue. The Egyptian detailing here provides "one of the most extreme expressions of this style to be found in England" (Cherry and Pevsner 353). Under a bridge at the end of the avenue lies the Circle of Lebanon, with the catacombs on a passageway built round a great Cedar of Lebanon. Above that is a terrace and the parish church of St Michael, built on the site of the earlier house, and dating from 1831-32. It was designed by Lewis Vulliamy — there, Coleridge lies buried under its central aisle. Bunning was probably responsible for the catacombs in the Western Cemetery, certainly for the catacombs just below the church, with their Gothic details, dating from about 1840 (Cherry and Pevsner 354) — though the "New Catacombs" of the outer ring, in classical rather than either Egyptian or Gothic style, were added in the later 1870s by Thomas Porter (d.1889/90), the Cemetery Company's architect at that time.

The setting and layout were much admired at the time: "Highgate [Cemetery] is peculiarly fortunate in its position — the slope of a picturesque hill, with the beautiful parish church just above, appearing to form a part of it, and below, at a little distance, the mighty metropolis outspread" (Saunders 174). About 100,000 people were buried there by 1888 (Cherry and Pevsner 354). Among the many famous Victorians laid to rest in the Western Cemetery are the sculptors Henry Hugh Armstead, Edward Hodges Baily and Alfred Stevens; the engraver George Dalziel (another of the celebrated Dalziel Brothers); the scientist and inventor Michael Faraday; the artist Charles Landseer (brother of the more famous Edwin); the poet Christina Rossetti, as well as Elizabeth Siddal and other members of the Rossetti family; and the novelist Mrs Henry Wood. Geary and Bunning are themselves buried there.

The Eastern Cemetery

Left to right: (a) Gates of the Eastern Cemetery. (b) A row of crosses in this section. (c) A woodland scene here, with ivy-covered monuments.

On the other side of Swain's Lane lies the extension opened in 1855, which is known as the Eastern Cemetery. A tunnel, complete with a hydraulic system for lowering the coffins down, was built from the chapels to the new annexe, in order to avoid taking them across the road thronged with funeral carriages and crowds of mourners and visitors. The Eastern Cemetery is a more natural, even woodland, area, open for visitors to walk around by themselves. Here too are the graves of many distinguished Victorians, such as George Eliot, G. H. Lewes, Herbert Spencer, Frank Matcham (the architect of many London theatres, including the London Coliseum) and Sir Leslie Stephen. Perhaps the most famous grave of all is that of Karl Marx, though the celebrated granite edifice surmounted by the huge bronze head dates only from the 1956, when his grave was moved from a more obscure spot in the cemetery.

Highgate Cemetry Then and Now

Some recent monuments (left to right): (a) That of William Alfred Westropp Foyle (1885-1963), the founder of Foyle's bookshop on Charing Cross Road, whose residence was in Beeleigh Abbey, also commemorated on the tombstone. (b) Esmé Bawden, d. 1997, touchingly commemorated by a female figure enfolding an infant. (c) Jeremy Beadle (1948-2008), the well-known TV presenter.

In general, the lie of the land here, rising irregularly up Highgate Hill towards Highgate Village, makes this a very picturesque graveyard. In the past, it was considered "the definitive cemetery of the London bourgeoisie..., less formal than Kensal Green, less public than Norwood" (qtd. in Curl 92). "Let green leaves and sweet-smelling flowers, fresh and beautiful as their own imaginations, wave around [those buried in London cemeteries]," gushed a contributor to Charles Knight's large collection of essays on London in 1843; "let us feel how sweetly they must 'sleep,' how serenely 'rest!'" (Saunders 176). Now, with the extra atmosphere that comes from age and the weathering of the monuments, which often lean quaintly at different angles, it seems even more picturesque. However, so much grave slippage and undergrowth means that the days when people could picnic among the tombs and shelter from showers in the mausoleums are long gone. Many believe that Bram Stoker found some of his inspiration for Dracula in Highgate Cemetery, and its air of decayed grandeur has made it a popular location for filming horror movies. The fact that important people are still being buried here may hasten the costly process of restoration, and at least partially rescue it from its spooky reputation.

Philip Gould (1950-2011), the former Labour peer and strategist, in a movingly sculpted embrace. As this example shows, the art of funerary sculpture, that flourished in Victorian times, still flourishes now within new affective parameters. The figures here are enclosed within a simple arch.

Sources

"The Catacombs and Terrace in Highgate (Western) Cemetery, Camden." British Listed Buildings. Web. 26 July 2013.

Cherry, Bridget, and Nikolaus Pevsner. London 4: North. Buildings of England series. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002. Print.

Curl, James Stevens. The Victorian Celebration of Death. Paperback ed. Stroud: Sutton, 2004. Print.

Knight, Charles, ed. London, Vol. IV. London: Charles Knight & Co.: 1843. Print.

Friends of Highgate Cemetery. "Eastern Cemetery: Notes on Some of the Many Eminent People Buried in the Eastern Cemetery, Highgate." Formerly available at the Cemetery Office. Print.

_____. "Western Cemetery: Notes on Some of the Many Eminent People Buried in the Western Cemetery, Highgate." Formerly available at the Cemetery Office. Print.

"History." Highgate Cemetery. Web. 26 July 2013.

Pearson, Lynn F. Discovering Famous Graves. Princes Risborough, Bucks: Shire, 1998. Print.

Rutherford, Sarah. The Victorian Cemetery. Botley, Oxford: Shire, 2008. Print.

Saunders, J. "London Burials." London, Vol. IV, ed. Charles Knight. London: Charles Knight & Co., 1843. 161-176. Print.

Weinreb, Ben, et al. The London Encyclopaedia. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 2008. Print.


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Last modified 31 July 2013