If you own no other book of cemetery photos, this is the one to have. Be warned, however: once you see this book, you will want to journey to London and visit Highgate Cemetery. Sixty-five luminous black-and-white photos, lush with the textures of marble and ivy, capture the romance of of the Victoria cemetery.
John Gay’s photos record the play of the seasons amidst the graves. A lion, larger than life, sleeps shrouded in snow. Drifts of Queen Anne’s Lace pile up around headstones. Fallen leaves carpet granite steps. Angels mourn under cloaks of ivy. Mist softens the outlines of bare branches behind a cross adorned with cherubic faces. Christ ascends toward Heaven, his face uplifted in the sun. It’s impossible not to want to see the things for yourself.
An introductory essay by Felix Barker, a London historian, details the history of the graveyard since its consecration in 1839. It passes (too quickly for this inquiring mind) over the desecration in the 1970s, when witchcraft was performed on the graves and bodies were staked as alleged vampires. The cemetery in all its ruined glory stood on the verge of being dismantled, the bodies exhumed, and the land sold for recreational purposes when the Friends of Highgate Cemetery formed to look after its upkeep and restoration.
The most visited grave in Highgate Cemetery belongs to Karl Marx. The only photograph in this book to include the living records a gang of young Chinese men in pressed uniforms come to pay their respects. One man looks back at the photographer with a smile.
This is the book that started me visiting graveyards. If you don’t already visit them yourself, you’ll find it inspirational. Here’s a link to Amazon: Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla