The story goes that the tomb of Mary Nichols lay completely hidden under ivy until the 1980’s, when it was discovered by photographer John Gay. It’s now uncovered and everyone who takes the Highgate Cemetery West tour can see it.
On the top of the grave lies a sleeping angel on a bed of clouds.
Sheldon and I visited Highgate West in July 2011 (2 years ago now) and the sleeping angel was my standout point. She was beautiful and I spent about 10 minutes photographing her from all angles. Sadly, I have since lost all my files from Highgate (always back up your files! Or use an analog camera!) except for two, one of which, as luck would have it, is a picture of Mary Nichols and her sleeping angel.
Not a lot is known about Mary. She died in 1909 of diabetes and heart failure and she had lived in Muswell Hill. The inscription on her tomb reads:
‘In Ever Loving Memory of Mary , the darling wife of Arthur Nichols and fondly loved mother of their only son Harold who fell asleep 7th May 1909. Also of Dennis Arthur Charles son of Harold and Winifred who died 28th April 1916 aged 18 months.’
If you visit Highgate West, you can find Mary Nichols near the entrance to Egyptian Avenue, still surrounded by ivy.
I don’t know why the sleeping angel drew and held my attention so much. Maybe it was something to do with her being caught between two much bigger, more imposing tombs that were all angels. In comparison, the curves of the cloud bed and the body of the angel looked much softer. There was something peaceful about her and I couldn’t stop looking.
Also, this was rather early on in my cemetery education and I had seen angels on gravestones in all sorts of poses, but never lying down, sleeping. If you Google ‘Mary Nichols and the sleeping angel’, there are pages and pages of results (it seems I am not Mary’s only fan), and some web pages claim that this is the only known sleeping angel in a cemetery. Is this true? Have you seen another? Get in touch if you have.
Photography by Christina Owen.