The impact of Père Lachaise was felt around the world, much like the plagues that inspired its design and necessitated its creation. Inspired by this French masterpiece, the United States followed suit in 1831 with Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As the first real, rural graveyard in the county, the cemetery provided a perfect balance of nature, remembrance and eternal sleep. In England, Liverpool introduced Low Hill General Cemetery in 1825 and in 1832 Scotland unveiled the stunningly gothic Glasgow Necropolis, which remains one of the most spectacular cemeteries in the world. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, the Glasgow Necropolis drew from the dramatic designs of Père Lachaise, while introducing elements all its own.
The Glasgow Necropolis, inspired by Père Lachaise, but uniquely British © Andrew Gough
Pre-Victorian England was a melting pot for characters of all walks of life, such as Giovanni Battista Belzoni, an eclectic Venetian, whose career can be summarised as ‘circus man turned Egyptian tomb raider’. Belzoni travelled extensively and in 1813 fled to England to avoid imprisonment. In 1815 he journeyed to Malta to showcase his newly developed hydraulic lifting machine, which he hoped to use to raise the waters of the river Nile in Egypt. Although Belzoni’s proposal was never adopted, he was commissioned by Henry Salt, the British consul to Egypt, to apply his innovative machine to the business of relic removal, in Luxor. Much to the horror of bona fide archeologists, Belzoni and his 130 men spent 17 days dragging the ‘Young Memnon’ bust of Rameses II from the Ramesseum in Thebes to the River Nile. Within a few weeks the gigantic statue arrived at the British Museum, where it was heralded as a remarkable achievement. Belzoni’s spoils were featured in an exhibition in 1821 and Londoners were enthralled. It was not only the French who were obsessed with all things Egyptian, but the English too.
Giovanni Battista Belzoni and his spoils: the bust of Rameses II from Thebes
The great cholera epidemic arrived in Europe in 1831, and although largely confined to London and Paris, it underscored the need for Londoners to progress what Christopher Wren had suggested nearly 15 decades earlier: move London’s cemeteries outside the city. Each cemetery was to be privately funded and have its own act of Parliament and each was placed at a necessary distance from the centre of the city in a rural landscape, fitting for a Victorian era obsessed with melancholy, nature and death.
A governing body was established and designs for London’s new-era cemetery were underway. Unlike Castle Howard and Stowe, which merely hinted at the synthesis of nature and death, London’s vision for a series of evocative fields of rest surrounding its urban residents in a commemorative circle was its Elysian Fields on a scale not seen before or since. England’s architects were inspired by Père Lachaise, but Belzoni’s Egyptian booty had ignited their fire, and perhaps none more so than Thomas Willson, who proposed a gargantuan, 15-acre pyramid-shaped mausoleum be built on Primrose Hill, North London.
Thomas Willson’s pyramid mausoleum design
One would think that Willson was competing for the Grand Prix himself when he submitted his plans for a granite-faced pyramid with over 5 million beehive-shaped combs spanning 94 tiers, complete with veneration shafts and four entrances. Willson’s design, which would have dwarfed St Paul’s in size and austerity, was, in the end, rejected. He was, however, forgiven his boldness, for the bee and its hive have represented regeneration for thousands of years. In fact, Napoleon, who commissioned Père Lachaise, was nicknamed ‘The Bee’, and, in France, the shape of the country is thought to represent a 6-sided honeycomb. The Fleur de Lys was understood to have been a stylised bee, not a lily, and Childeric, the most famous of the ancient French kings, was found buried with golden bees in his tomb. Napoleon had just returned from Egypt and the region where he fought the Battle of the Nile was known as ‘The Bee’. In Egypt the pharaoh’s cartouche contained an image of a bee and he carried the office of ‘beekeeper’. The mythology of the bee would not have been lost on the designers of the day.
While Willson’s pyramid necropolis never evolved from the drawing board it was conceived on, there was appreciation for his vision. In 1830 London’s General Cemetery Company was founded, at the insistence of a local barrister, George Carden, who had lobbied for cemetery reform since the 1820’s. Willson and the gothic revivalist, Augustus Pugin, were duly appointed architects of London’s first Elysian Fields, Kensal Green. Sadly, Willson’s propensity for bold ideas ultimately led to his dismissal and a contest was held for the commission; a gothic designer by the name of Henry Kendall was awarded first place, only to be replaced with the more palatable classical artist, John Griffith. Contention and controversy of this sort were common, as competition for design work in London’s Elysian Fields was taken very seriously.
London’s Kensal Green was but one of seven Elysian Fields, each inspired by Père Lachaise: Kensal Green (1833), Norwood (1837), Highgate (1839), Abney Park (1840), Brompton (1840), Nunhead (1840) and Tower Hamlets (1841). Their existence was premeditated by the 1836 Act of Parliament, ‘for establishing cemeteries for the interment of the dead, northward, southward and eastward of the metropolis’ built by the London Cemetery Company (LCC). The reason that the Act of Parliament did not mention ‘westward’ was because Kensal Green was already in existence at the time. The LCC was founded by Stephen Geary, who would direct the design of three of London’s Elysian Fields, including Highgate Cemetery. London’s Elysian Fields form a circle around the city, symbolising protection, unity and eternity. Serendipitously, a microcosm of this symbolism can be found in each of London’s Elysian Fields, but perhaps most poignantly in Père Lachaise, where a snake eating its own tail represents eternity.
A snake eating its own tail, representing eternity and, serendipitously, the circle of cemeteries around London © Andrew Gough
As noted, Kensal Green cemetery in West London was the first of London’s Elysian Fields and opened in 1833 with considerable fanfare. From the start it was apparent that its designers had paid great attention to detail; the left-hand road of the cemetery led to the tombs of “Turks, Jews, infidels and heretics”, while the right-hand road led to consecrated graves. Despite the segregated nature of the layout, which was considered perfectly acceptable, if not desirable at the time, the cemetery was deemed a great success. Kensal Green also incorporated catacombs into its design, no doubt inspired by the success in Paris, and befitting of London’s first, Père Lachaise-inspired, field of rest.
The catacombs at Kensal Green © rayfrenshamworld.blogspot
London’s Elysian Fields owe much to another figure, and one who is tied to Kensal Green in a rather ironic way: John Claudius Loudon, an outspoken Scotsman, botanist and editor of a popular gardening magazine. Like many young men, Loudon embarked on the Grand Tour and learned of the intrinsic value of gardens in the schema of high society. In 1830 he reviewed The Mummy!, a book by an anonymous author. He eventually met the author, who revealed herself to be Jane Webb, an early pioneer of the science fiction genre. They married and her Egyptian-influenced novel, set in 2126 AD, would influence her husband’s work on London’s Elysian Fields for years to come. In 1843 Loudon published his own book, On the Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries: and on the Improvement of Churchyards, and in the process established the standard for cemetery design that is still practised today. Ironically, Loudon is buried in the grounds of Kensal Green’s stunning 72-acre park; a cemetery he was critical of, but which inspired him to greatness.
Kensal Green and the view from behind the chapel © Andrew Gough
The Egyptian-styled tombs of Kensal Green, complete with beehive, representing knowledge of the ages © Andrew Gough
Kensal Green and one of its many Egyptian tombs © Andrew Gough
Kensal Green’s ethnic diversity resulted in dramatic architecture set against a serene Victorian garden © Andrew Gough
Angels point to heaven; a recurring theme at Kensal Green © Andrew Gough
Two exquisitely carved statues mourn the eternal sleep of their beloved © Andrew Gough
In 1837, four years after the creation of an Elysian Fields at Kensal Green, West Norwood Cemetery opened on a haunting 40-acre estate, just south of the city. Although its chapels are badly eroded and damaged from World War II bomb attacks, what is left of West Norwood’s stunning gothic design stands testament to a time when design and layout were paramount. Buried within its confines are famous entrepreneurs, and sports figures, such as cricketers and prize fighters, as well London’s most accomplished composers, surgeons and writers, including Sophia Poole, whose book, Englishwoman in Egypt, rode the crest of England’s wave of fascination with the mysterious land of the ancients.
The gothic entrance gate to West Norwood Cemetery © Andrew Gough
Dramatic sculptures, mausoleums and Egyptian obelisks greet the visitor at West Norwood Cemetery © Andrew Gough
The moody, yet pastoral, setting of West Norwood © Andrew Gough
Memento mori at West Norwood Cemetery: commemoration for the young © Andrew Gough
An angel gazes towards heaven at London’s second Elysian Fields © Andrew Gough
A couple of years later, in 1839, the most popular, and certainly the most renowned, of London’s Elysian Fields opened north of the city, in the hill-top village of Highgate. The cemetery is perhaps Britain’s best example of a Victorian Valhalla and owes more to Père Lachaise than any other, complete with catacombs and famous residents, such as Karl Marx and, most recently, Malcolm McLaren, the iconic grandfather of punk music and manager of the legendary band, the Sex Pistols. Time will tell if McLaren’s grave becomes the focus of pilgrimage, like Jim Morrison’s tomb has in Père Lachaise, but one thing is certain: the cemetery has attracted more than its share of eccentrics over the years.
In addition to having been a favourite film set for vintage Hammer Horror movies, the cemetery has suffered repeated vandalism over the years by the likes of Satanists, necromancy cults and vampire hunters. The mother of Bram Stoker, author of the horror classic, Dracula, lived nearby and often recounted the legend of a tall, dark, supernatural-looking figure that roamed the area before the cemetery was created. There have been many vampire sightings in and around Highgate Cemetery and a local priest is said to have tracked it down and killed it in the early 1980’s, complete with a stake to the heart. Recent reports claim that the vampire or (according to the President of the British Occult Society) an entity, conjured by Satanists, and which has been mistaken for a vampire in the past, has recently returned. Whatever the truth may be, Highgate Cemetery does not require legends of vampires in order to be mysterious, evocative and grandiose; it is one of the most magical and mythical fields of rest in existence.
The former entrance and site of alleged vampire sightings
The Egyptian avenue in Highgate Cemetery © Andrew Gough
The haunting Lebanon Circle, with its many Egyptian-styled entrances © Andrew Gough
One of the many gothic masterpieces in Highgate’s Western Cemetery © Andrew Gough
Highgate’s Eastern Cemetery also evokes the gothic splendour of the Western half © Andrew Gough
The construction of Highgate Cemetery was followed within a year by Abney Park Cemetery and, in 1840, the north London village of Stoke Newington opened its gothic gates to the public for the first time. By design, Abney Park Cemetery, like the others, was more than just a cemetery. It was, and remains, a remarkable achievement in landscape design and a synthesis of Arcadian themes, influences and symbols, reaching back thousands of years. Abney Park Cemetery is also the foremost burial ground for Dissenters in London, replacing London’s Bunhill Fields cemetery as the home of London’s non-conformists. It is also one of the most diverse cemeteries in flora and wildlife. At its heart is a hauntingly derelict chapel that sets the mood. Like Highgate Cemetery, Abney Park is a favourite haunt of Satanists and other neo-cults of the dead. It also contains Egyptian-influenced design and bee symbolism, like Kensal Green and its mentor in France, Père Lachaise.
Abney Park Chapel and a detail from the Egyptian-styled main gate © Andrew Gough
The untamed splendour of Abney Park © Andrew Gough
Beehive symbolism, representing wisdom, partially covered in a veil, signifying learning cut short by death © Andrew Gough
Symbolism of gothic remembrance: plant on the left and wreath on the right © Andrew Gough
1840 was a prolific year in the construction of London’s Elysian Fields and Brompton Cemetery, west London, opened shortly after Abney Park. Today, the stunning cemetery is listed on English Heritage’s ‘at risk’ register and managed by the Royal Parks Agency. This is no wonder, for these particular Elysian Fields are a truly remarkable testament to the union of death and nature and featured prominently in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film, Sherlock Holmes. The once financially troubled cemetery is now part of an inner city community and, with the growth of London over the last 150 years, has been transformed into an urban cemetery once again. A stroll through Brompton Cemetery’s lush grounds reveals the forgotten tombs of once-famous thespians, musicians, artists and war heroes.
Brompton Cemetery has a serene feel all its own © Andrew Gough
An angel overlooks the resting place of the departed © Andrew Gough
One of Brompton’s many Egyptian-styled mausoleums © Andrew Gough
An Egyptian-styled tomb and fake door; serpents guard the entrance to a tomb © Andrew Gough
Nunhead Cemetery, south west of London, was the third cemetery opened in 1840. Draped across 52 acres of hillside, the cemetery offered unique views of London to the north, as well as surrounding areas. Nunhead was designed by Thomas Little, who was awarded the project for his design of an octagon-shaped cemetery with a crypt beneath. The entrance gate is adorned with two large inverted torches signifying that one is about to enter a land where life as we know it has been extinguished. Once again, the architectural style is decidedly gothic, with Egyptian overtones and, like the rest of London’s Elysian Fields, many of its finest monuments either no longer exist or are badly damaged. Befittingly, its residents include Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge, Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum.
The entrance to Nunhead Cemetery with two inverted torches, symbolising a domain where life has been extinguished © Andrew Gough
Nunhead’s remarkable gothic chapel © Andrew Gough
Nunhead’s sculptures are sensational, and especially evocative in the snow © Andrew Gough
The omnipresent Magdalene, clinging to the cross, and a carving from the gothic chapel © Andrew Gough
Tower Hamlets Cemetery opened in 1841 and completes the group of seven Victorian, gothic cemeteries, inspired by Père Lachaise, known as London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’. At 33 acres, Tower Hamlets is the smallest of London’s Elysian Fields, but a striking exhibition of refined gothic architecture and a splendid wooded park, full of meandering paths and alcoves. Sadly, its Egyptian-styled tombs and lodge have been replaced and burials were discontinued in 1966, when the privately owned cemetery was purchased by the Greater London Council. Today, the cemetery is, like so many others, home to more dog walkers than visitors. The atmosphere, however, remains evocative and typically melancholy. Its famous residents include Charles Brown, the antique collector and ‘uncrowned king of Limehouse’, whose funeral attracted over 10,000 mourners.
The meandering and unkempt look and feel of Tower Hamlets Cemetery only add to its mystique © Andrew Gough
The avenue in Tower Hamlets is lined with many austere sculptures © Andrew Gough
The garden walks of Tower Hamlets are as rewarding today as when Victorians walked them © Andrew Gough
Mary, looking to heaven as she clasps the cross; a common symbol in Elysian Fields. Nearby, a diminutive statue of an angel lies in a field © Andrew Gough
And so concludes our review of the Magnificent Seven, which I term London’s Elysian Fields, for they are truly fields of rest for the beloved faithful of Britain’s capital. The story of London’s Elysian Fields would not be complete, however, without mention of Brookwood Cemetery, which was opened in 1856 and, at over 450 acres, remains the largest cemetery in Britain. Brookwood is also the only cemetery to have been located truly outside London, in the suburb of Woking, some 23 miles outside the capital and even had its own railway station, with trains departing from Waterloo Station, near the River Thames in London. The cemetery qualifies as an extension to London’s Elysian Fields and offers what is arguably the most diverse assortment of tombs in the world.
The railway from London once stopped just outside Brookwood Cemetery © Andrew Gough
Angels point towards heaven amidst the heavily wooded setting of Brookwood Cemetery © Andrew Gough
Arguably Brookwood’s masterpiece, an angel takes flight in the forest © Andrew Gough
Many tombs in Elysian Fields portray the deceased as they lived © Andrew Gough
Ancestor worship is perhaps the oldest form of commemoration in the archaeological record. London’s Elysian Fields extend this tradition by paying homage to its ancestors in a way that incorporates the mysteries of life in symbolism, juxtaposed against the backdrop of everyday life, nature and the elements. The British and French cemeteries, and the individuals, politics and societies that inspired them, drew from each other to produce a stunning testimony to the fate that awaits us all: death. The 21st century, however, has seen mankind become less concerned about ancestor worship and more focused on celebrity, notoriety and the instant gratification that comes from social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter. As a result, we fear death, as opposed to incorporating it into our world view. Let us hope that a renewed appreciation of our ancestors evolves naturally and does not require an epidemic of calamitous proportions to inspire us once more.
The author, Bunhill Cemetery, paying respect to one of London’s many notable ancestors, William Blake © Andrew Gough