London

An avenue in Highgate

Egyptian Avenue 1

Highgate Cemetery opened in 1839, one of seven new cemeteries established during the early Victorian period, in what were then outer suburbs of London. Its architect, Stephen Geary, placed the astonishing Egyptian Avenue at the heart of the new cemetery. Today, with its Portland cement discoloured by age and moss, the Avenue’s portal has the decomposing grandeur of some Pharaonic monument. But given the lushness of the encroaching vegetation, it’s a Pharaonic monument somehow transplanted to the tropics. When newly built, freshly painted, and decorated with what a writer of the era (Edward Walford, Old and New London, 1878) called ‘Oriental ornaments’, including a winged serpent, it must have been even more impressive.

Egyptian Avenue 2Walk through the arch and you’ll find sixteen family vaults, each with shelf space for twelve coffins. And all now neglected and unvisited, the result, I suppose, of family lines dying out. The gently rising Avenue, imbued with melancholy and faded glory, is like a North London Valley of the Kings.  Modern eyes, viewing this romantic decay, might imagine it as the backdrop for a period drama or horror movie. Or conjure Cleopatra (in the form of Elizabeth Taylor circa 1963), being borne down the Avenue on a throne of burnished gold, accompanied by Nubian guards and trumpet blowers…

The Victorians treated the Dead with greater respect and less sentiment than we do. There’s something about this Egyptian pastiche that jars with the Gothic atmosphere of the rest of the cemetery, and with Anglican notions of death and the life to come. It’s too showy, too fanciful, too pagan. It took a long time for the London Cemetery Company to sell off all of the vaults and recoup its investment. But if the Avenue was a commercial failure, it remains a stunning imaginative success.

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. I was just in Highgate at the end of last week. It’s spectacular and beautiful.

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