Portraits celebrate 'life after life' in Highgate Cemetery

George Eliot and Beryl Bainbridge by Alicia Griffiths part of the Life After Life Exhibition at Highgate Gallery

'Laughing in the face of sanctimonious disapproval' George Eliot and Beryl Bainbridge by Alicia Griffiths part of the Life After Life Exhibition at Highgate Gallery - Credit: Courtesy of the artist

A dog show founder, a punk icon, and Victorian sex workers feature in paintings of those buried in Highgate Cemetery.

Life After Life at Highgate Gallery is inspired by the richly diverse lives of the people who rest in the famous burial ground. Thirteen artists have brought their personal interpretation to portraits that reference Jewish suffragist, Ernestine Rose, journalist Claudia Jones, and philosopher Karl Marx.

Motion picture camera inventor William Friese-Green is depicted with David Edward Hughes, who invented the microphone. Authors Beryl Bainbridge and George Eliot share a glass of wine on a bench, while jazz guitarist Bert Jansch, Rosetti's muse Elizabeth Siddall, and celebrity chef Phillip Harben also feature alongside 10 "Lost Girls of Highgate" who died at a reformatory for "fallen women" off North Hill.

Georgala Corrie depicts celebrity chef Philip Harben for the Life After Life exhibition at Highgate Gallery

Georgala Corrie depicts celebrity chef Philip Harben for the Life After Life exhibition - Credit: Courtesy of the artist

The Beyond The Likeness Group all met on the contemporary portraiture course at Art Academy London and say that bringing together figures from different centuries, with contradictory or complementary attitudes, allows them to explore attitudes to sex, the environment, and death itself.

Highgate artist Patricia Gutierrez said: "We are 13 people, from different countries with different approaches to death and commemoration. It's been a brilliant project we all enjoy working with each other."

She has depicted the cemetery itself, which she loved so much she signed on as a volunteer: "It went bankrupt and closed for 15 years and became a free for all for grave robbers and vampire hunters. It's so green, you are confronted by this nature growing from the dead - it reminds you even on summery days we are very close to death."

Her painting restores the names of the 10 women who lie in a communal grave: "There is injustice for these girls, the youngest was 12, rescued from prostitution buried there in an unmarked grave. They were thought not worthy of being named, they had to be punished. The cemetery made the decision to leave it unmarked as part of history, but I am marking their names."

Belinda Wrigley Angel II in Highgate Cemetery part of the Life After Life exhibition at Highgate Gallery

Belinda Wrigley Angel II in Highgate Cemetery part of the Life After Life exhibition at Highgate Gallery - Credit: Courtesy of the artist

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Belinda Wrigley was inspired by the cemetery's angel statues and imagines a mystical world where these ethereal guardians of the graves leave their posts and come to life.

Alicia Griffiths wondered how different celebrities would have interacted if they had met and shows Eliot and Bainbridge “laughing in the face of sanctimonious disapproval”.

Ruth Swain chose the graves of dog show founder Charles Cruft, and punk icon Malcolm McLaren to highlight environmental and recycling concerns. McLaren's depicts a dumped bin liner bursting out with punk paraphernalia, while Cruft's shows a dog poo bag.

Ruth Swain's painting of the grave of dog show founder Charles Cruft in Highgate Cemetery

Ruth Swain's painting of the grave of dog show founder Charles Cruft in Highgate Cemetery - Credit: Courtesy of the artist

"We all went on a group visit and were blown away there were so many famous names everywhere you looked," she said. "During Covid I'd go on a lot of walks and see dumped poo bags so I've used the grave as a little bit of a joke."

Swiss Cottage artist Jess Routley chose Camden Chinese Community Centre founder Shu Pao Lim.

"It's a bit daunting when every grave could make a thousand paintings, but there is less visibility for the non famous non white residents of Highgate Cemetery, and I wanted to draw attention to the Chinese history in my area that I didn't know about."

Pao Lim fled Burma in her 20s before becoming a social worker in London. She founded the centre to help elderly and vulnerable community members access services.

"It's remarkable how little is written about her when she's done so much in Camden. She only died recently and there are still a lot of people who knew her. She achieved a lot it was a massive task to get it all into one painting and to find someone's personality when you can't get to speak to them. I took a maximalist approach to include all the elements of her life."

Life After Life runs at Highgate Gallery in South Grove from March 4-17. Admission free. Chairman of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, Ian Dungavell gives a zoom lecture on March 1. To book a place, visit hlsi.net/lectures