Image Practices in Past and Present
- ISBN: 9783848752775
- Published By: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft
- Published: January 2021
In 19th-century London, public concern began to be voiced over the increasingly overcrowded and unhygienic environments of many of the city’s churchyards. To that end, new commercial cemeteries began cropping up around London’s suburban edges from the 1830s onward, offering pleasanter environments in which to bury the dead. Several of these have come to be known as the “Magnificent Seven,” and none has become better known than Highgate Cemetery in North London, now the final resting place of an eclectic range of luminaries from Karl Marx to Douglas Adams.
The inaugural volume in the new Nomos Media and Religion series, Highgate Cemetery: Image Practices in Past and Present is an edited volume exploring the eponymous burial space. It is the product of an interdisciplinary research network, the International Exchange on Media and Religion, which brings together researchers from England, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, and began life as two workshops held at Heythrop College (since disbanded) in London in 2016 and 2017.
The book consists of sixteen chapters divided into six parts: “The Broader Image,” “Politics of Images,” “Image Cultivation,” “Fantastic Images,” “Images of Eternity,” and “Images of a Paradise Garden.” As these section titles suggest, this is a volume very interested in the visuals of Highgate Cemetery. In their introduction, the editors highlight that the chapters included therein “are based on the assumption that Highgate Cemetery is more than a collection of material objects, but above all the expression and the source of inspiration for mental images” (23). In tackling this subject, the contributors draw from varied theoretical perspectives rooted in areas of anthropology, art history, philosophy, and cultural studies.
The precise topics covered range quite widely and stretch from the cemetery’s Victorian origins through to the prospects for its future. Highlights, at least for this reviewer, included Alexander Darius Ornella’s discussion of the grave of bare-knuckle boxer Tom Sayers in the context of how sports players are portrayed as heroes, Anna-Katharina Höpflinger’s examination of how popular culture has conceptualized the cemetery as being haunted, and Sean Michael Ryan’s analysis of how Victorian hymns would have influenced interpretations of many of the graves.
As can be expected from an edited volume, the quality and importance of the contributions varies, and different readers will no doubt find certain chapters more useful than others depending on their own particular research interests. Several of the chapters, especially those in the first section of the book, make use of specialist jargon which is unlikely to be inviting to scholars not already acquainted with the terminology and attendant theoretical and methodological perspectives of specific fields and sub-fields. Many of the chapters focus on summarizing existing secondary literature on a range of topics and then tying them in to specific graves at Highgate. These can be interesting, but offer very little in terms of substantive new scholarly contributions. It would have been good to see more of the contributors delve into what historical information may exist regarding the specific designs of particular graves – who commissioned them, who designed them, and what artistic influences were they drawing on, for instance – in order to more deeply contextualise their analysis.
Although written in English and examining a location in England, the book has been published in Germany and uses certain continental European styles of formatting, to which many Anglophone scholars may be unaccustomed. It is nicely illustrated throughout with a selection of both black-and-white and colour photographs and illustrations. The print version comes with a hefty price tag, however a free-to-read, open access version is also available from the publisher’s website. While this is not a work that revolutionizes understandings of Highgate Cemetery itself or Victorian funerary practices more broadly, it may well be of interest to scholars whose research delves into these topics. Most probably, it will be a work that readers dip into so as to utilize specific chapters rather than one they will wish to read cover to cover.
Ethan Doyle White is an independent scholar.Ethan Doyle WhiteDate Of Review:September 22, 2021