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Making of a design - Highgate Cemetery

Cait Peterson - Highgate Cemetery design

In the second year of my illustration course, I did a project about the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries in London. At the time in 2008, I visited all seven cemeteries and took photos, but with the other projects at the time, it sort of fell by the wayside. I’ve been wanting to return to the project since then.

Last year, I started working on two designs for Highgate Cemetery. I created two backgrounds in charcoal pencil, one of the Circle of Lebanon, and one of the Egyptian Avenue.

My idea was to show some of the famous burials at Highgate in ghostly form. I liked the idea of famous residents such as Christina Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal, Georgiana Houghton, Radclyffe Hall, Leslie Hutchinson and Michael Faraday getting to know each other in the afterlife. I painted Rossetti, Siddal, and Houghton in watercolours, but wasn’t completely happy with the composition.

My original project had been influenced by Art Nouveau, especially the posters of Alphonse Mucha. When I returned to the project last year, I thought that this would seem like an odd historical mix, taking into account when the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries were built (1832-1841).

Nothing really came out of the designs I worked on last year, since I wasn’t happy with the style. Going back to them this year, I decided to return to the Art Nouveau influence. I think this style works well with the cemeteries, since both evoke a sense of harmony and stillness, gracefully intertwining architectural lines and frames with stylised themes from nature. Mucha’s work uses the female form to represent various abstract ideas, but I knew I wanted to fully represent the women who were buried in Highgate rather than just objectify them.

Sisters-in-law Lizzie Siddal and Christina Rossetti were a natural pairing, despite what they may have felt about each other in life. I suppose that if you knew each other in life and are buried in the same cemetery, you must naturally be drawn together (pun not intended). Of course, there is the famous story of the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti burying his wife with a book of his poems, and then later deciding to exhume her in order to retrieve the volume. Siddal wouldn’t have been too happy about this fact, so I’ve shown her holding the book and sitting contemplatively with her eyes closed, as depicted in Rossetti’s posthumous portrait of her Beata Beatrix.

Beata Beatrix

Christina Rossetti

Both images by Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I drew Christina Rossetti in the same pose as depicted in a famous portrait by her brother. Instead of looking dreamily into the middle-distance as in his portrait, she looks directly at the viewer. I didn’t want the fact that Highgate is shown as haunted to be frightening in itself, but rather to have the slightly creepy aspect come from the fact that the people depicted are watching the living. Having recently purchased a copy of Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems from my local bookshop, Chener Books, I wanted to incorporate the goblins of the poem into the composition.

In my original composition, I had the Egyptian Avenue-inspired frame going all the way around, and swirls of mist on the inside create some visual space and signify the mystical aspect of the view. I almost abandoned the design again because I wasn’t happy with the composition, until I tried taking away the bottom of the frame and having the mist spill out into the bottom right of the page. I decided to make some vague goblin-like figures in the mist around Christina Rossetti.

Cait Peterson Highgate Cemetery draft

I felt that Georgiana Houghton would have been a good match with the artistic and spiritual Siddal and Rossetti. When I started researching her, I was annoyed that I didn’t go to the exhibition of her work at the Courtauld Institute in 2016, which had probably only just finished. Seeing images of her work without knowing who she was, I had assumed she was working during the 20th century rather than a century earlier. Her spirit drawings are certainly unlike most other 19th century art. Houghton was a spiritual medium who created her watercolour paintings while in contact with the dead. You can see some of her spirit drawings on the Courtauld’s website. Of course, Houghton is also looking directly out of the image at the viewer.

By Georgiana Houghton (Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance, 1882.)

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I struggled a lot with getting to a composition that I liked. I went through multiple different iterations of the design. Ultimately, I think this project has been an exercise in persistence. Even though I had the initial idea for these designs nine years ago, I wasn’t happy with any of the versions until hitting on the current one. The Magnificent Seven Cemeteries are some of my favourite features of London, and I’ve been wanting to pay homage to them since I visited Kensal Green ten years ago as one of my first excursions in the city.

Prints and postcards of my Highgate Cemetery design will be available from my Etsy shop soon.

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