Where nothing is real but the ghosts
The room is abandoned, yet the fire still burns. The candles flicker and the meal’s half-eaten. The inhabitants can only have left for a second. Perhaps to fetch a dustpan to sweep up the smashed remains of that dropped teacup, or to gasp fresh air after a nightmare that left the bedsheets rumpled beyond sweet dreams. They might have gone for a mop to clean up last night’s riotous party or to collect more wood for the kitchen stove. Don’t expect the house to help you, though. You have to look. To listen. To sniff and to feel. To open yourself to layers of possibility. Time stands still here, but which time? Whose time? The frozen moment is later than you might think.
Spitalfields, just east of the City of London, was once a fashionable area of superb Georgian town houses, wide, glamorous squares and one of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s finest churches. Its buildings briefly rivalled those of Mayfair and St. James as an embargo on imported French silk kept immigrant Huguenot weavers and merchants in both employment and riches. After the ban was lifted, however, prices fell. The area slipped into poverty; at first genteel, then grinding. During the 19th century, Spitalfields became a ghetto for which-ever immigrants were fleeing persecution at the time, known in various decades for its Jewish, Irish, Bangladeshi and Bengali populations. Once-exquisite houses became dilapidated hov-els. The nearby fruit and vegetable market kept the area seedy and smelly, despite being mere yards from the ever-burgeoning wealth of the Square Mile.
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In the long run, of course, this worked to Spitalfields’ advantage. Too poor to replace the original fixtures and fittings, its ephemeral residents had merely lived in the houses, not “improved” them. The buildings survived in far more authentic states than their posher, West End cousins that had seen dream kitchens and fancy bathrooms come and go with every passing trend.
Hear Sandra speak about Dennis Severs' House in the third episode of the British Heritage podcast series.
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a brief window of opportunity. An educated, artistic cognoscenti that both understood and appreciated Spitalfields’ architecture and history started to uncover its riches with the devotion of archaeologists, just before the inevitable developers caught on and gentrified the life out of it. Artists such as Gilbert and George, Georgian history fanatics such as Dan Cruikshank—and one slightly odd but very determined American.
Dennis Severs was born a good couple of hundred years after his time. Considered somewhere between “exceptional” and “mentally retarded” by his exasperated Southern California teachers, Severs realized his childhood dream of moving to England in the 1960s at the age of 18. He abandoned studying for the Bar to conduct horse-drawn carriage tours around Hyde Park and then, when his stables were bulldozed by developers, bought a run-down shambles in what was then a cheap area of town. He ripped out a few electrical fittings and running water, then invented a history for his house.
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Naturally, that history involved people. The Jervis family were Huguenots, who had immigrated to England to escape persecution and anglicised their name from Gervais. Skilled weavers, they had become well-to-do silk merchants, and now needed a lavish home to suit their new lifestyle. Severs set about turning the four-story-plus-basement at 18 Folgate Street into a palace for his imaginary family. It effectively became a full-size doll-house.
Markets such as Portobello Road, Petticoat Lane and Bermondsey still exist today, but are picked-over by dealers hours before the public arrive; there are few bargains to be had any more. The 1970s and early ’80s, however, saw the flowering of the London flea market. Old “stuff,” particularly Georgian and Victorian, was considered hideous junk, to be smashed for fun or picked up for pence. Where everyone else saw trash, Dennis Severs saw treasure.
Every room had a theme, lovingly assembled from genuine antiques, old junk, bits of rubbish and careful stage-setting. Severs slept in each room to get its “feel” then populated it in the way it—and his imaginary residents—spoke to him. A cozy back parlor, an elegant first-floor reception room. A blue and white Dutch-china filled bedroom, a squalid dormitory fit only for a scullery maid.
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The Jervises were collectors of all manner of knick-knacks, both fashionable and quirky, but they weren’t terribly tidy. Mr. Jervis left his wig lying around. Mrs. Jervis’s bed was never made and her tea and biscuits often went cold. Bottles were knocked over and no one ever cleared up the papers or plates of food they’d finished with. The servants’ work was so arduous the kitchen was an eternal mess and the children habitually left their toys on the stairs. Upstairs in the garret, bolts of cloth gathered dust, as did the mouldering four-poster bed donated to the skivvies when the family got a new one. Washing hung from the attic roof. Your eyes still need to adjust for some minutes in pitch darkness to enjoy the cellar’s grimy charms.
Dennis Severs has been called a 3-D novelist, and a visit to his house still requires you to “read” its 10 rooms like chapters in a dense, multilayered, historical novel.
He passed away in 1999, aged just 51, but fears the house would lose its character seem largely to have been unfounded. His creation—part stage set, part art installation, part game, part historical essay—was bequeathed to the Spitalfields Trust, who have wisely kept it pretty much as it was.
In his day, Severs was known to rudely eject visitors he deemed disrespectful of the spirit in which he’d opened his home, and even today you are asked to view the rooms in silence so both you and others can appreciate the concept. It’s emphatically not a tourist attraction. I’m refreshed by the attitude to health and safety risks; you are expected to act like an adult: to look where you are going, pay attention and have some sense of personal responsibility. Things are left on the stairs. There are dark corners and tripping hazards, naked flames and slippery surfaces. For obvious reasons children are not allowed, but part of Severs’ House’s appeal is that the visitor is trusted with something precious, delicate and beautiful.
Try to see the house by candlelight. “Silent Night” happens on Mondays and Wednesdays throughout the year between 5 and 8 p.m. Winter months, being darker, see the rooms at their most mysterious. The very best visit of all is during the period leading up to Christmas, when the whole house is decorated in period festive style. Greenery and ribbons, mince pies and mulled wine, rows of gingerbread men threaded onto string over a roaring ire, holly boughs, moulded jellies, tiered dishes of sweetmeats and a Christmas tree decked with real candles provide sparkles of festivity in a dark and somewhat eerie setting. Christmas Silent Night gets booked up months in advance, so if you’re planning a December visit to the capital book as soon as you can. In fact it’s a good idea to book ahead for any of the house’s open days as numbers are strictly limited.
Not everyone “gets” Dennis Severs’ House, hence its motto: “You either see it or you don’t.” But for those who do, this is possibly the most sublime visit in London.
DENNIS SEVERS HOUSE, 18, Folgate Street, E1 6BX