Art in Strange Places

Imagine October and one of those wonderful golden days. You wake up to a crisp morning knowing that the sun will warm the air and by lunch time the temperature will be perfect…

My friend Paula and I jumped in the car and headed for London, Highgate Cemetery to be exact. I had heard from friends that this was an amazing Gothic visual feast. I knew that art colleges went for day trips and had seen enough photos to entice me. As ever, I am always looking for new inspiration and exciting backgrounds for my watercolours, so off we went armed with cameras and extra batteries.

I had done my homework, having looked it up on the internet and there are some lovely gothic novels out there as the place was reputedly haunted by a vampire. Was? Maybe it still is…

The Victorians had an incredible attitude to death. They were fixated by it and it was actually called The Cult of Death! If you were wealthy, it was important to be buried in the very best cemetery that your family could afford. Bear in mind that the plots nearest to all the paths were the most expensive and there were rules about what was expected in such esteemed positions. Now would you believe… if a better position cropped up in an even fancier cemetery, they thought nothing of digging up the poor relative and shuffling their poor bones along to the better proposition! How about that? Final resting place? I don’t think so!

There were seven Garden Cemeteries in London, all hugely wealthy, it was an incredibly lucrative business. Only the best materials were used and there is a point high up in  Highgate where the architecture is sparkling pink granite, designed deliberately to be seen across the London basin all the way to the City. It was a statement, “Look at us! We are the best! Come and rest here when your day is done.” We can’t really believe it today, but these places used to be as busy as a modern shopping mall on a Saturday. The Victorians used them as parks, courting grounds and for business meetings.

Sad to think that the Victorian era came to an end, the cemeteries fell into decline and Highgate was bought by the Friends of Highgate back in 1975 for less than £1! Nobody wanted it.

Today, the road cuts the grounds in two. The West Cemetery can be visited by tour only and we had booked our slot in advance. As your guide collects you and leads you out of the chapel into the courtyard, the sheer size and elegance of it takes your breath away. The Victorians sure knew about architecture, didn’t they? A sweeping stairway leads you up to the grounds. Our guide explained that only men would have been present as women were considered to be too delicate to attend funerals (we are so predisposed to the vapours is my guess!).

The West cemetery is seen only in the company of a guide because it is so overgrown. Seeds have fallen over the years and saplings are now growing between and on the graves, the stones and tombs are precarious at best, but that just adds to the wondrous abandonment of it all. Seeing the light shafting down between the trees and hanging ivies took my breath away. I desperately tried to keep up with the party as I stumbled across one  incredible sight after another… angels sleeping with feathered wings amongst the ivy, a statue lifting a hand to heaven, caught in a beam of light, oh my…

We visited the grave of the poor Russian diplomat Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned with polonium, and here was reality! Then around the corner, the young man that fell in love with Beatrix Potter but died so young with scarlet fever. I whispered hello and told him that she was OK…I visited her house in Cumbria earlier in the year and it was such a happy place, her spirit wrapped it all in love.

And Lizzie Siddal! I am such a Pre Raphaelite fan, I was practically jumping up and down with excitement. How about this for a story? She was the model for Holman hunt, Millais and Rossetti and many of you will know her as Ophelia floating down the river. Eventually Rossetti married her, but she died young from opium addiction. Distraught, he wrote a book of poems for her, and because he was so obsessed with her hair, had her buried with the book tangled in her red locks. Years later, fickle as he was, he decided that the poems had been rather good and wanted them back! So they dug her up!!

Now, as I mentioned earlier, there was nothing unusual in this and in fact, it was quite a “normal” procedure. Believe it or not, there was even a law that stated that disinterments had to be after midnight by the light of a bonfire! Rossetti didn’t bother to attend, but his best friend stated that the book of poems had disintegrated, but her hair had grown to fill the coffin! Nice…

(Just a little fact here: did you know that it was illegal to be a body snatcher, taking bodies for medical use, but grave robbers were perfectly legit? You could climb in, have a dig, grab any clothes or bling that you liked, and then scarper. Sick of the mess every morning, all of the cemeteries were surrounded by HUGE walls to deter would be entrpreneurs!)

We walked up to the Egyptian Avenue and spluttered over the porticos and tombs, such beautiful incredible work. An enormous Cedar of Lebanon quietly swayed above and we stood in awe. Within, we visited the tombs of the select few including that thought to belong to the Highgate Vampire. There was silence in the group and a delicious shiver of something went down our backs as we looked at the cracked door and heard about the continual attempts at breaking in, even today. I took some wonderful photos and plan to use those to illustrate the story.

Our afternoon in the East Cemetery was much calmer visiting Karl Marx and various other dignitaries. I found the area dedicated to the London Fire Brigade. I took a moment to say hello as several of my uncles have worked as firemen and felt the need to show some respect for their fallen collegues. We took so many photos, I am still sorting through. But if you love nature, art and the simplicity of life’s cycle, it is worth a visit. And if you sit in the dappled sunshine as we did eating our sandwiches, please say “hello” to the little robin who was so brave and kept us company.



There is a small admission charge for the East Cemetery. You have to book to visit the West Cemetery -Cost £12.00

Parking on the street is plentiful on Sundays.


Toilets are available.

Seating is plentiful.