Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
Art, printmaking, inspirations, gardening, vegetables, hens, landscapes, wild flowers, East Anglia, adventure, travel.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

London Part 3: Highgate on the hill

Yes, if you picked answer 'c' to my little quiz, you guessed correctly - we did indeed go for a walk in a muddy and overgrown graveyard. But, not just any cemetery, we went to somewhere both Cliff and I had wanted to visit for many years . . . Highgate Cemetery. This is the pinacle of the Victorian art, architecture and sociology of death and mourning - if that sounds a bit morbid, think again . . .

At the beginning of the 19th century London's population more than doubled within 30 years, the infra-structure of the city couldn't cope - and that included the disposal of the dead. The existing graveyards became squalid, rat infested layers of corpses. As part of the major works needed to make London a more pleasant place to live, it needed new areas in which to bury people - the greatest and probably the most famous was the huge cemetery on the hill at Highgate in north London.

Death was part of the Victorian culture - stipulated durations of mourning for a spouse, child, parent; symbolism on memorials; mourning fashion and commemorative jewellery; printed cards and poems - all these added up to a lucrative business which must have employed many people, not only in London but in every town throughout the country.

The people who buried their loved ones in Highgate Cemetery where mainly the wealthy and notorious. Self-made men and women who were the celebrities of Victorian London, they wanted the most fashionable in style and they wanted to be remembered for perpetuity.

To see the West Cemetery you have to join a guided tour; our guide was charming and extremely knowledgeable, she led us up a flight of mossy stone steps into the dark ivy clad woods which now engulf the thousands of tombs . . .

Through the entrance to The Egyptian Avenue
a 'street' of family tombs.

To the great Cedar of Lebanon,
an ancient tree pre-dating the cemetery,
now standing high above the tombs in
the Circle of Lebanon.

Past tombs of husbands, sons, fathers and brothers;
mothers, daughters, sisters and this young bride
forever alone in her tomb below her fashionable
upholstered armchair.

A showman's lion snoozes
above his master . . .

A bare-knuckle fighter's loyal hound
lies at his master's feet as the seasons
turn year after year . . . forever.

And everywhere there are beautiful angels -

angels carrying garlands of flowers
as they walk through the shady woods . . .

and angels asleep on their
mossy stone pillows.

Victorian art and architecture at it's most sentimental, one of London's hidden treasures. And at the top of Swains Lane you'll find Highgate 'village', home of well-heeled 21st century Londoners, we had a nice lunch at The Gatehouse (one of the many good pubs) and looked in some of the smart little shops before setting off for home. There are so many corners of London I've yet to explore - I wonder where our next visit will take us?


  1. Just a thimbleful....

    Oh yes, how atmospheric - and thought provoking! It is a shame that our modern cemeteries do not allow for angels and lions to guard us in the afterlife! Have you ever been to Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris? I went to look round for an hour and spent the whole day there!

  2. I echo Mavis' comment - my sister and I spent hours wandering round Pere Lachaise in our early twenties. There's something terribly romantic about old cemeteries.

  3. Here's another who's seen Pere Lachaise, but somenhow never managed to visit Highgate. Your photos are quite beautiful, and will encourage me to see it for myself in a year or two ... or who knows when. xo

  4. Hi Mavis, Dottycookie and Frances - Looks like I need to book the Eurostar to Paris ;-)


  5. is highgate village situated in the cemetary or overlookin it? the photos are lovely. such ornate cemetaries seem to have fallen out of style, out of money, &/or out of space now.

  6. Hi Petoskystone - Highgate Village is just to the north of the two Highgate cemeteries - The East Cemetery is late Victorian to present day and is where Karl Marx is buried. We went to The West Cemetery which is maintained as a Heritage Site, although you can still be buried there if you have a family plot or pay a lot of money! Swains Lane bisects the two cemeteries and leads to Highgate Village at the top of the hill.


  7. Despite being born in London and having lived there many years I have never visited Highgate cemetery. It's now on my list of places to visit!

  8. I went to Highgate for the first time a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. It is so beautiful. And Highgate Village was a great place to find a good cup of tea!

  9. Highgate looks wonderful. There is a small non-conformist graveyard at Bunhill Fields, off of Old Street that is well worth a visit. William Blake is buried there amongst many other well known people. Then again, every town has remarkable places like this if only we took the time to explore. Fantastic photos.

  10. Lovely photos, Celia. Very atmospheric, I love all those drooping angels... Penny x

  11. Another place to add to my "To see" wish list.

    Congratulations on the post below. I love that shop and have bought lovely cards there. Your work would be perfect for them

  12. Thank you Celia for your very kind birthday wishes!

    This is such an atmospheric post - the photos are wonderfully moody. I too have been to Pere Lachaise in Paris and to Highgate Cemetary, in fact I like looking at gravestones - they are a little bit of social history after all, and utterly fascinating.

    Jeanne x


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