Gothic tombs and Victorian secret codes

“So was there anybody famous?” I was telling a German friend about my recent visit to Highgate Cemetery in London. “Well, there are but we didn’t particularly look out for them, so not really.” And that’s the point about a tour around West Highgate Cemetery, it’s not about visiting graves of famous people – though there are many, some more known to the British, and some like Karl Marx to be found in the East Cemetery – it is about the architecture, history and cult of burials in the Victorian era. Or at least it was for me.

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The entrance. Originally you didn’t see any monuments from here unless you went up the stairs and entered the burial grounds.

Highgate Cemetery opened in 1839 on the then outskirts of London as one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’, a range of cemeteries that was intended to help with the overflowing and therefore sometimes unpleasant smelling and looking graveyards in the city. It soon became a fashionable place for burials and to visit. The Victorians had a very distinct attitude towards death which led to some magnificent Gothic tombs and building. Every detail on a grave had a meaning, the Victorians loved double meanings and secret codes, so monuments were usually symbolic – either religious (crosses, angels), symbols of profession or symbols of death (urns, columns). It was expected that you spent as much as you could afford on grave and what was deemed fit to your social status.

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We were just a group of four on our tour (sometimes it pays off to do thinks off-season) and our guide was very funny and knowledgable. Unfortunately a sleet shower cut our tour somewhat short and made my exploration of the East Cemetery quite wet, muddy and a bit uncomfortable.

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If a grave was built on three elevations or ’steps’ it represented the three virtues Faith, Hope and Charity.

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You didn’t open some graves by removing the top but instead the front stone. As a reminder ‘Entrance’ was written on this one. No ‘Exit’ though.

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Egyptian Avenue. When the cemetery was founded there was a strong interest in everything Egyptian and Egyptian style architecture was associated with the memorialisation of the dead.

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Originally the path through the gate of the Egyptian Avenue was roofed.

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Circle of Lebanon. Built around a massive ancient cedar tree which was once part of the grounds of Accurst House (demolished in 1830).

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Circle of Lebanon.

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Circle of Lebanon with the cedar tree.

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Terrace Catacombs. The catacombs were either used as a final resting place or temporarily whilst a plot was chosen. Inside, the gallery is lined with separate recesses that hold a single coffin, 825 in all.

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Doors of the mausoleum of Julius Beer, the owner of The Observer (amongst other things). He built it for his daughter who died at a young age. At the time he was able to see it from his office in London.

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Nero, the lion, on the tomb of George Wombwell, a travelling menagerist

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This recumbent angel is an unusual sculpture but beautifully done.

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Many graves are quite overgrown which gives the whole place an eerie feel.

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East Cemetery, where you will also find the grave of Karl Marx amongst others.


One thought on “Gothic tombs and Victorian secret codes

  1. Pingback: The joy of colour | design and dragons

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