Shining a light on the history of Highgate cemetery’s Karl Marx memorial

Karl Marx Tomb at Highgate Cemetery

Karl Marx Tomb at Highgate Cemetery - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Sculpture lovers are invited to discover more about one of north London’s most polemical monuments as part of an exhibition tracing the stories behind radical public statues.

Lawrence Bradshaw working on clay model of Karl Marx statue, 1955 [photo: Laurence Henderson]

Lawrence Bradshaw working on clay model of Karl Marx statue, 1955 [photo: Laurence Henderson] - Credit: Whitechapel Gallery

The ongoing Whitechapel Gallery ‘Sculptors’ Papers’ collection sheds new light on the iconic Karl Marx memorial at Highgate Cemetery through a dedicated display charting its creative process, political reaction and critical responses.

Adorning the revolutionary philosopher’s grave at the east side of the Swain’s Lane burial ground, the tomb was designed by socialist sculptor Laurence Bradshaw in 1955 with the aim of producing “not a monument to a man only but to a great mind”.

The Grade I listed memorial – featuring a brooding bronze bust resting on a rectangular marble plinth inscribed with “workers of all lands unite” – was installed the following year by the Communist Party although Bradshaw did not sign the finished work.

Since then, the monument has become a familiar pilgrimage site for Marxist followers and socialist politicians, as well as a target for attacks and demonstrations, including damage from homemade bomb explosions in the 1970s.

The unveiling of the famous Karl Marx grave, in 1956

The unveiling of the famous Karl Marx grave, in 1956 - Credit: Archant

But archived papers transferred from the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds reveal how the creation had an equally substantial effect on Bradshaw himself. The artist suffered a decline in commissions and largely abandoned figurative work after being stigmatised for his public support of Marxism in the midst of the Cold War.

Such historical context is key for defining radical art, as the Whitechapel Gallery’s archive curator Nayia Yiakoumaki explains: “The projects we have chosen to represent are radical mainly because they were either avant-garde or too outmoded for their time.”

Most Read

“Both approaches lend themselves to a strong debate about how significant commissions are at a given period, how artists view public sculpture and how their visions shape-up in their own propositions for public works,” she adds.

Those visiting the exhibition can draw on original documents to determine Bradshaw’s rationale for the memorial – reflecting Marx’s sociological ideas using an accessible, realist style underpinned by a minimalist geometric base – in addition to details of how the public have both worshipped and despised the monument.

“People comment on how this small exhibition changed their perception of public sculpture, making them more observant of the hidden stories behind public works,” says Ms Yiakoumaki, co-curator of the display, which also features plans for famous 20th Century sculptures now standing in Whitehall and The Strand including Alfred Hardiman’s statue of Field Marshall Earl Haig and Jacob Epstein’s Dancing Girl for the British Medical Association building.

“All the projects covered in the exhibition are very significant for London. We see them every day but we are not aware of their history and the ideas that shaped them.”

Sculptors’ Papers from the Henry Moore Institute Archive’ runs at the Whitechapel Gallery, EC1, except Mondays until February 22, 2015. Admission is free.