Architecture: To Paradise by way of Kensal Green: Amid the elegant statuary and temples of All Souls Cemetery, Harrow Road, London, life after death is a perpetual party. Lucinda Lambton mourns the passing of such beauty and dignity in funerary art

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The Independent Culture
WALKING through a cemetery or churchyard today is like walking through the saddest Sixties development, with one terrible and terrifying difference - that the cemeteries and churchyards are still being built, hand over fist, with all the blinkered fervour of the post-war years.

Great tracts of consecrated land have become grim, modernistic cities in miniature. With rules and regulations as to the size, height and material of the memorials - resulting in an unrelenting uniformity - all but the most determined have been restrained from producing original work.

Democracy in life has become a dictatorship in death, with everyone of us forced to suffer a Ceausescu-like regimentation of stone and marble blocks marching roughshod over our remains. Even the most aesthetically aware is now forced to spend eternity under an architectural blight on the landscape.

The cemeteries and churchyards of the past were created as morally uplifting oases, reflecting the ideals, the dreams and the tastes of the times. What in heaven's name do these sterile stumps, relieved only by grizzly green and multicoloured marble chippings, reflect of our ideals today?

Walking through a 19th-century cemetery, on the other hand, is like walking through an architectural Utopia, like Joseph Gandy's, Thomas Cole's and C A Cockerell's fanciful paintings of dream cities, with every Regency style crammed on to the canvas.

There is no more exciting skyline in the British Isles than the Glasgow Necropolis, with its Classical, Gothic and Egyptian mausoleums and there is no richer concentration of architectural conceits than those found at the Cemetery of All Souls at Kensal Green in north-west London.

I have just spent a week filming there for my Alphabet of Britain ('K is for Kensal Gothic', BBC 2, Monday, 8.50 pm), and if I had been on a Grand Tour the world over I doubt whether I would have found such a rich variation of design, including, I'm afraid to say, all the iniquities of 'infill', with the modern tombs lumped between the old. Rather than a 'battle of styles', it is a celebratory ball of styles that can be revelled in at Kensal Green, which was the first of the great metropolitan cemeteries built in London in 1833.

Catching sight of these Elysian fields through a gate in a wall along the Harrow Road is nothing short of glimpsing paradise through the gates of heaven. There you are in the midst of urban uniformity when, quite suddenly - and only for a second - you see a flash of complete countryside, elegantly planted with statuary and temples.

Walk under the Doric arched entrance and you walk into the very core of 19th-century culture - its people and its architecture - with the whole gamut of Victorian life, all commemorated with idiosyncratic flair and originality. It is as if there is a perpetual party in progress, with a glittering array of luminaries whose lives are forever being celebrated by their memorials.

If there is life after death, no more interesting life could be enjoyed than with the company that is gathered together at Kensal Green. Isambard Kingdom Brunel lies there, within earshot of his creation, the Great Western Railway. Philip Hardwick, architect of Euston Arch, is buried in the cemetery next to George Augustus Smythe, the last man to fight a duel in England, who is interred amid Gothic finery.

Thackeray is next to his old school friend the illustrator John Leech, both of them only feet away from their first employer, Shirley Brooks, who was the editor of Punch. W H Smith lies under a stone book and Frederick Winsor, who brought gas lighting to the British Isles, is commemorated by a stone flame blazing from an obelisk, inscribed: 'At evening there shall be light.'

To parade up the main avenue is to parade through the pages of an architectural pattern book, with the Royal Acadamician William Mulready under the most elegant of classical canopies on a fringed stone bier beneath which are carved scenes and implements of his artistic life. Gazing at him from over the way are four giant Eastern caryatids supporting a sarcophagus on which are laid the stone hat and sword of Major General Sir William Casement, 'who terminated his valuable life at Cossipore in 1844'.

Most outlandish of all the memorials is the Egyptian mausoleum built by Andrew Ducrow in 1836 to honour his wife and eventually himself to the tune of pounds 3,000. 'Pondrous coxcombery,' growled The Builder, on seeing this extraordinary little building, which has every Egyptian motif squashed into its tiny structure.

Andrew Ducrow himself was as odd as the monument that commemorates him. A showman of dazzling ability, he perfected the picturesque art of poses plastiques equestres - that of striking attitudes as Zephyr, Mercury or a Yorkshire foxhunter while riding or driving as many as nine horses at one time. There were elegant variations, such as when the curtain would rise to reveal Ducrow, in skin-tight attire, standing motionless atop a plinth.

After a moment's rich appreciation of this classical pose, you would be treated to his gradual transformation from one antique statue to another. He died in 1862, a few days after his favourite horse, John Lump. His stone hat and gloves lie at the door of the mausoleum.

This has been no mere sentimental ramble through a cemetery. I feel a passion for all these people, their lives having been brilliantly brought into mine through all their memorials and epitaphs.

With such a heritage as this, at Kensal Green alone, how can funerary art have sunk as low as it has, with such drearily impersonal consequences? All the improvements that have swept through architecture would seem to have bypassed this miniature world of structural design.

(Photograph omitted)