One of the key publications in cemetery studies “Highgate Cemetery; Victorian Valhalla” is sadly out of print but good second hand copies can be picked up online for less than a tenner. Originally published in the UK in 1984 by John Murray in conjunction with the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, unusually for a book on a single London cemetery an American edition was published by Salem House the same year. The public image of Highgate was essentially created by Gay and Barker’s book and thereafter assiduously marketed by the Friends of the Cemetery. There have been further books on the cemetery, John Swannell’s 2010 book of photographs published by Hurtwood Press and the Friends for example, but the view presented of the cemetery always sits comfortably within the template set by Gay and Barker.
John Gay was born Hans Göhler in 1909 in Karlsruhe, Germany. He studied art in Paris but taking an interest in photography returned home to try and make a career for himself as a photographer. He left Germany for good at the age of 24 in 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor and the Nazi’s snatched power and emigrated to London where he had friends. No doubt the increasing hostility to Germans in the run up to the Second World War were ultimately behind the decision to give himself an English name but the reason for his choosing the 18th century poet who wrote The Beggar’s Opera as his namesake is not clear; perhaps he had seen the 1931 film of Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper and was making his political affiliations clear? Like his fellow national Bill Brandt, Gay became a successful commercial photographer in England taking striking portraits of the famous and documenting the daily life of the country for the magazine market.
As the cover makes clear this is a book of John Gay’s photographs, Felix Barker’s contribution is merely an introduction. Barker was a successful journalist who had become the youngest drama critic on Fleet Street at the age of 19. He was also interested in art and architecture and as a sideline published books on London’s history including the innovative “London As It Might Have Been”, which looked at all the grand architectural plans for the capital that never got off the ground. He was an inspired choice for the text of the book. In a little over 30 pages he retails all the key narratives that have since become the story of Highgate Cemetery; its creation by Stephen Geary, its architectural marvels, its unparalleled success as the premier Victorian cemetery, and its decline into semi wilderness and eventual rescue by the Friends. As for its inhabitants he tells us about James Selby the coachmen, General Otway, George Wombwell, Tom Sayers and Julius Beer amongst others. We also learn about the Druce and Rossetti scandals but there is no mention of vampires or Satanism. It is a lively trot through the history of the cemetery and sets the scene effectively for Gay’s photographs.
Gay’s cemetery photos, particularly those he took of Highgate, are iconic. His is an essentially romantic vision; he was clearly fascinated by the cemeteries return to nature, angels wreathed in ivy, sometimes only a face or an upturned managing to escape the sprawling vegetation, tipsy monuments seemingly on the point of being toppled by tree roots, stairs covered in dead leaves, memorials imprisoned in a thicket of saplings, collapsed tree trunks held up by cast iron railings. Everywhere in the photos the work of civilisation, the human drive to memorialise the dead, is being engulfed and obliterated by the twin forces of time and nature. Whether he set the fashion or merely captured the zeitgeist, his photos are now the prototypical vision of what a London cemetery should be. The Friends expend considerable effort maintaining the cemetery just as Gay saw it. Nature is only allowed to run rampant up to a point, then it is carefully trimmed back, uprooted or cut; monuments must not be allowed to fall or be damaged. Nature must be carefully held in check, its attempt to overtake the cemetery frozen in mid course. It is a very tight balancing act.
If you pay to go on one of the Friend’s guided tours you will get to see the majority of the monuments and sites within the cemetery photographed by Gay. Very little has changed since 1984 when the book was published. Undergrowth has been trimmed back to better reveal some of the memorials and despite the best efforts of the Friends some monuments have succumbed to the ravages of time or vandals. There has also been some new burials – the tour guide will inevitably point out Alexander Litvinenko’s grave after you have paused at James Selby’s and might draw your attention in passing to Beryl Bainbridge. George Michael is off limits though, one more of Highgate’s secrets carefully guarded by the Friends.