One of the greatest cemeteries in London is Highgate in North London. Crammed with the great and good and also some of the not so good it contains some of the most dramatic funerary architecture to be found in the capital.
The cemetery is bisected by Swain’s Lane with Highgate West on one side and Highgate East on the other. Usually the West side can only be accessed by being on an official tour but this year it was a little different……
Social distancing, in this case, was a good thing! As The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust(FOHCT) were unable to hold tours during the summer they cunningly decided to offer ‘free range’ tours instead. For £10 you could book a time, agree to follow a few sensible rules on safety etc and then wander round the West side at will. And if you had the energy, as Highgate West is large, have a look round the East side as well. The West is very overgrown and FOHCT like their visitors to be safe. They didn’t want their visitors to have a nasty accident and then haunt them forever more.
Please note that I have covered Highgate in a previous post – 16/2/2016 to be exact so some memorials mentioned here will have been covered more fully in that post.
So, on 10 July, I entered through the arch of the chapel and into the green cathedral of the West side. The trees had linked arms above the graves, monuments and memorials to form a canopy over the entire site. It felt as if everything was bathed in green light as I walked up the hill. At its highest point Highgate is 375 feet above sea level. Cemeteries are often built on these as their permanent residents are nearer ‘my God to thee.’
I passed the empty chair memorial to a young actress and spotted a pelican in her piety symbol amongst the undergrowth. The overgrown nature of the West side gives it a real charm and mystery. A helpful steward directed me to the Rossetti group of graves which I’d always wanted to see but he also pointed out the grave of a woman who had died when her dress had caught alight. Apparently this only ceased with the coming of the mini-skirt and possibly central heating.
The Rossettis have their own path named after them but the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is not buried with them. Instead his parents Gabriele (1783-1854) and Frances (1800-1886), his brother William (1829-1919) and William’s wife Lucy Madox Brown (1843-1894), who was the only daughter of Ford Madox Brown, his sister Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) and Dante’s wife Lizzie Siddal (1829-1862) occupy the plot.
Lizzie features as the model in several of Dante’s paintings and the Victorian web points out that she died aged 32 instead of at 30. She was addicted to laudanum which was derived from opium and was a Victorian cure-all. Laudanum was prescribed for morning sickness and cranky infants amongst others. It was easy to become addicted and she succumbed. Lizzie was pregnant at the time of her death, although she may not have known it, and had already had a stillborn child with Dante. It is still not known if she died of an overdose or a deliberate act of suicide. However, she was a talented artist in her own right and some of her work was featured in the 2019 exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters.’
But Lizzie has also been commemorated by an act that occurred after her death. One of Dante’s early biographers recorded it:
On the day of the funeral Rossetti walked into the chamber in which the body lay. In his hand was a book into which at her bidding he had copied his poems. Regardless of those present he spoke to her as though she were still living, telling her that the poems were written to her and were hers, and that she must take them with her. He then placed the volume beside her face in the coffin, leaving it to be buried with her in Highgate Cemetery. This touching scene will some day doubtless be the subject of a picture. Time, after its wont, hallowed and sanctified the memory of loss, but the bereavement was long and keenly felt. Meanwhile, the entombment of Rossetti’s poems had an effect upon which the writer had not calculated. They were familiar to many friends, and passages of them were retained in the recollection of some. These poems were during subsequent years the subject of much anxiety and wonderment, and the existence of the buried treasure was mentioned with reverence and sympathy, and with something of awe. Seven years later Rossetti, upon whom pressure to permit the exhumation of the volume had constantly been put, gave a reluctant consent With the permission of the Home Secretary the coffin was opened” by a friend of Rossetti and the volume was withdrawn. [Knight 76] from the Victorian Web site
It would haunt Dante for the rest of his life. In one of his most famous paintings ‘Beata Beatrix’ painted in 1869, which is an amalgam of several drawings of Lizzie, a white poppy features. The red dove represents their love and the poppy the laudanum that hastened her death. It’s derived from poppies. Dante died in 1882 and is buried at Birchington-on- Sea.
William Rossetti was a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and wrote widely. He was also the biographer of his family. One of Christina’s most famous poems was ‘Goblin Market’ and she also featured in ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters.’
I returned to the path but discovered a selection of the rich and famous as I walked up to the Circle of Lebanon.
Alas, the venerable 250 year old Cedar of Lebanon after which it was named succumbed to old age in 2019. It was a survivor from the Ashurst estate on which Highgate West was built on and was an impressive sight. Now a wildflower garden stands on the spot. I had come out onto the upper terrace and from there I could see the layout of the Circle much more clearly. There are some impressive monuments here: Nero the lion eternally slumbers on the Wombwell monument. George Wombwell was a Victorian menagarist who owned 3 travelling animal shows. The monument to John Maple features low relief carvings from the life of Christ. He owned a very successful furniture business which occupied a large site on Tottenham Court Road. It no longer exists. The Circle is built in the Classical style and the inner circle contains 20 vaults and another 16 were added in 1870.
The Terrace catacombs were closed although I have been inside them on a previous visit. By contrast they are in the Gothic style and were built on an existing terrace from the Ashurst estate. The frontage is 8 yards long with room for 825 people in 55 vaults each containing 15 loculi or coffin spaces. I was reduced to peering through a doorway on this occasion before turning to the magnificent Beer mausoleum which was built for his 8 year old daughter, Ada.
As it was a self-guided tour I had time to admire the summer wildflowers which were growing in profusion. Cemeteries are good places to find these; Acanthus, ragwort, verbena, Ladies Bedstraw, Vipers Bugloss, Rosemary Willowherb and also a buddleia in full bloom studded with Peacock butterflies on Faraday Path.
A sidepath from the Circle led me along another path which I’d not previously seen. The atmosphere seemed different and it was certainly darker, perhaps due to a thicker tree canopy, as I walked along it to a gate at the other end. This would have originally opened onto Swain’s Lane and there was what appeared to be a former gatekeeper’s lodge nearby. It still bore the monogram of the London Cemetery Company who were the original owners of Highgate cemetery. Time slips have been reported along this path and I wondered if it was the gate through which a man is reported to look out at unwary passers-by.
I retraced my steps towards the magnificent Egyptian Avenue one of Highgate’s highlights. Tom Sayer’s monument lay to my right with his faithful dog, Lion, eternally keeping guard and then the Sleeping Angel. This is dedicated to Mary Nichols who was a Londoner who died in 1909 from heart failure and diabetes. It’s a lovely tribute.
The horse on top of the Acheler memorial records John Acheler who became wealthy and well known as a ‘Knacker’. He called himself ‘horse slaughterer to Queen Victoria’.
And then the Egyptian Avenue! The centrepiece of Highgate West in my opnion. It may be looking a little tired but it’s a magnificent example of how the Egyptian explorations of the 19th century influenced funerary architecture. Note the two large obelisks flanking the entrance and the stylised lotus flowers on the columns as you enter through the arch and into the passage that will take you into the lower tier of the Circle.
The Avenue was also a catacomb but they were never really popular as other London cemeteries soon realised. After all if Highgate couldn’t sell all theirs then who could? The passage contains 16 vaults on either side which were each fitted with shelves to hold 12 coffins. These were bought by individual families for their own use.
By then I thought it was time to explore the East cemetery while I still had the energy.
Wildflowers were also in profusion here: clover, bird’s foot trefoil and vetch Butterflies flew about on the heat of a late summer afternoon.
I saw my favourites; Jeremy Beadle, Malcolm McLaren, Karl Marx and Patrick Caulfield. There was also the grand piano dedicated surprisingly enough to a pianist, Henry Thornton, who died in 1918 during the ’flu epidemic.
The East side isn’t as overgrown as the West side and as I explored further I found a memorial which highlighted a dog. This was dedicated to Ann Jewson Crisp and her faithful dog Emperor.
But as I left the East side I spotted another of its more celebrated residents settling down for a siesta behind the Great Train Robber, Bruce Reynolds’, memorial. It was a cemetery cat who was soon hidden deep in the grass and I didn’t want to disturb him or her. What a playground!
As I left the East Cemetery and walked down Swain’s Lane to Archway tube station I still had time to admire my ideal des res – Holly Village – which was built by Victorian philanthropist, Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. It is said that she planned it with Charles Dickens. She built the Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial in St Pancras Old Burying ground.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell except where indicated
References and further reading
Highgate Cemetery – maps to East and West cemeteries.https://www.hamhigh.co.uk/news/fascinating-history-of-unique-village-within-a-village-1-628284