Off the tourist track: Dennis Severs' House

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

"Aut Visum Aut Non!” ("You either see it or you don’t!”)
- motto of Dennis Severs' House
Dennis Severs’ House is… unique.  Outwardly unremarkable except for the gas lamp burning above the door, it’s an early 18th century Georgian terraced house in the Spitalfields area of London’s East End.  More remarkably, all five levels of the house - from basement to top floor - have been painstakingly dressed with period furniture and props to replicate life as it might have been for several generations of a family of Huguenot weavers in the 18th and 19th centuries.  More remarkably still, and much less prosaic, the house is often described as a “still life drama”.  It’s the work of Dennis Severs, an American born ex-pat who relocated to England in the mid-sixties and subsequently bought and moved into the house on Folgate Street in 1979.

The outside of the house

At the time Severs bought the house it had not been modernised, lacking electricity service or contemporary plumbing.  But rather than renovating or restoring the house Severs decided, in his own words, to “… bring it to life as my home. With a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll, I began sleeping in each of the house's 10 rooms so that I might arouse my intuition in the quest for each room's soul...  Then, having neared it, I worked inside out from there to create what turned out to be a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbour the light and the spirit of various ages in Time.”  As you might be able to detect, Dennis Severs was not, by any means, a conventional anthropologist, social historian or museum curator.  And the work he created in the house lies somewhere between museum and performance art, albeit without actors, hence the term “still life drama”.

With such an unconventional patron it's no surprise that a visit to Dennis Severs’ House is not intended to be as simple as pitching up, staring at some artefacts behind glass, reading a few carefully researched explanatory cards, and then finding the nearest pub.  Severs intended the experience to be much more.  Visitors are admitted in small groups, told to turn off their phones, and asked not to speak at all during the visit.  No photography is allowed. (Meaning that all the interior photos in this post are from the official Dennis Severs’ House Instagram page.)  The rooms are lit only with candles, firelight and whatever sun filters in through the windows (though I think it would have been improved if the curtains had been closed to block out the modern views outside).  Visitors are thus encouraged to enter into the world of the Huguenot weavers I mentioned earlier: the Jervis family, a creation of Dennis Severs’ imagination.

The house’s website explains this best:
"The game is that you interrupt a family of Huguenot silk weavers named Jervis who, though they can still sometimes be heard, seem always to be just out of sight. As you journey off into a silent search through the ten rooms, each lit by fire and candlelight, you receive a number of stimulations to your senses.  It is the smell of food that first aligns your imagination with the faces around you in portraits. Then… Mr. Jervis’ wig, is it not the very same one that hangs over the back of his chair? His meal is only half eaten; did he abandon it when he heard us arrive?"
As you might expect from the above quote, there are none of the usual explanatory cards I just mentioned.  You simply wander through each room, starting in the basement and moving up, and spend as much time as you want absorbing the incredible detail of each space.  And the detail is impressive.  Real coal fires burn in the grates.  A half-drunk glass of sherry sits on a side table.  A book of prayer lies open to the correct day’s date.  And the flowers in vases are real and fresh.  As a person who sometimes deals with historically detailed props in a professional context (and no slouch in the coal fire department either) even I was impressed. Add to that there’s the evocative smell from those fires and a very subtle soundtrack playing in each room.  Considering it's the work of one man with a very limited budget and no formal training it's frankly astonishing.

Close up
Table close up

Starting in the basement, you first enter the kitchen.  It’s crammed to its very low ceiling with the kind of detail that gradually becomes familiar as you move through the house.  There’s a bowl of flour with fresh egg shells on the table, and a plate of sugar mice on the sideboard. Dishes are stacked and waiting for use, or sit waiting to be washed at the sink in the corner.

1_Kitchen Wide
Every surface is full and worthy of examination.

Next to the kitchen is a bare and cold cellar with cobbled floor that’s partially torn up allegedly showing the archeological fragments of St Mary’s Spital, AD 1197.  The tableau is striking.

The ground floor consists of a front sitting room and dining room, where a pomegranate lies split open on the table, alongside other delicacies like whole glace oranges and items of everyday life - correspondence sitting open near a pair of reading glasses.  The next floor holds the Smoking Room, portraying a three dimensional copy of the Hogarth painting on the wall above the mantle “A Midnight Modern Conversation”, depicting a drunken party with chairs pushed to the floor, bottles overturned, and wine spilled on the table.  The main bedroom features a large fourposter bed and bed curtains but the bed itself is unmade as if the occupant just woke up.  Near the window a lady’s dress stands on a dressmaker’s dummy with a small note pinned to the bodice reading “Let out here”.

Perhaps most startling is the top floor, made up as a pair of very rundown lodging rooms rented out by the Jervis family, who, like the house itself, must have fallen on hard times.  It’s hard to tell what’s staged and what is evidence of the structure literally crumbling around you. Laundry hangs drying in the stairwell, and areas of the ceiling have collapsed exposing the wooden beams behind.  And if it gets quiet enough you can hear guns firing steadily on the soundtrack.  They’re a salute to the dead King William IV, signalling the accession to the throne of Queen Victoria.

Peeling paint and photogenic laundry

I genuinely thought this was an exceptional work of taxidermy until it moved.  
Apparently Madge the cat lives in the house!

The effect of all this, floor after floor, could be remarkable.  I say “could be” because this kind of thing always exists on a knife edge.  You really need to buy in, as does everyone in the group, for it to have the effect Severs intended.  I visited in the middle of the day, but they also run what are called “silent nights” when the house is open in the evening, which I think would enhance the experience. And if you want to pay £50 instead of the £10 I paid you can attend an Exclusive Silent Night, where you enjoy the standard silent wander and then are allowed to ensconce yourself in the room of your choice, next to the fire, whereupon you will be served a glass of champagne and allowed a free conversation with a member of the curatorial team. (Plus there's mulled wine and mince pies at Christmas!)

All of that would help, but in reality it is difficult to tune out the others in the group, most of whom arrive with companions and generally find it impossible to not make small comments to each other from time to time.  And there’s an inevitable amount of noise that comes from ten or twenty pairs of feet clomping around on very old floorboards.  And of course at some point someone’s phone will ring.  And sadly, almost every room had a handwritten note with some version of this text:
"Reminder. Every object in the house should be seen as part of an arrangement.  Each array tells a story.  To pick up an object in a shop is a risk, in a museum it is impossible; in a private house, particularly this one, it is simply insensitive - numb to Mr. Severs' vision."
1_Pay Attention
These notes are scattered around the house, tucked into tiny corners.  Another near the front door says: "Make no mistake... In this house it is not what you see, but what you have only just missed and are being asked to imagine."

Unfortunately, I fear I simply don’t have the temperament to make the most of this sort of thing.  This is not to say I didn’t find my visit worthwhile and enjoyable, though there are a few off notes.  For instance, despite the espoused time period of the house, there was a coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth II above one mantle.  And I cannot fathom why there was a modern bottle of micro-brewed beer, complete with UPC coded label, on a shelf in the front sitting room.  I was so puzzled that I actually asked a staff member about it as I was leaving, thinking that perhaps some even less reverential guest than myself had left it there as a joke. The only answer I got was, “I don’t know.  Dennis was…”  Yeah.  Fill in that blank. Though whatever one might think of Dennis Severs, you have to give him credit for creating a remarkable time capsule.  And you have to be grateful to the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, an architectural preservation charity, to whom Severs bequeathed the house shortly before his death in 1999.

So I did enjoy my visit, though it was short.  The whole tour, even taken at an appropriately contemplative and leisurely pace, only takes about 45 minutes.  By that time I was feeling thoroughly chilled by the effects of lingering in an old draughty house heated only by less-than-roaring fires and was very ready for lunch.  Luckily, the nearby Spitalfields Market has such an array of food choices it was slightly overwhelming.  I’d planned to simply hit a café and fill up on coffee and pastries, but was so hungry that I got a single meatball slider from a food truck, just to take the edge off.  And that slider... it was beyond good.   It was amazing. It was transcendent.  Eating that meatball slider was like looking into the face of God.

And I did eventually find a café, and after that even paid a short visit to Christ Church Spitalfields, a Nicholas Hawksmoor church from the 18th century, which turned out to be really nice.  They recently completed a very thorough renovation and it’s in fine fettle these days and well worth seeing.  Even the crypt is open and is now warm and bright and tidy and has a café and free wifi and public toilets.  Well done CCS!

And then I found my way back to Liverpool Street Station (which, by the way, has overtaken Oxford Street Station in my personal league table of Tube Stations Most Likely to Disorient You Upon Exiting).  And in a supreme act of willpower the level of which is usually reserved for hunger strikers and Leaf fans, I did not stop for eleven more meatball sliders.


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