“You either see it or you don’t”. The Dennis Severs House
January 12, 2019
Where do you go as a treat for a nephew whose 11th birthday is a week before Christmas?
We took him to the 18th century.
On Sunday 23rd December we travelled by London Overground to Shoreditch High Street.
As we walked towards our destination, we passed the strangely rather wonderful shop window of Gardner’s, Market Sundriesmen on Commercial Street since 1870. (It’s close to Spitalfields Market; if you’re ever setting up a market stall or pop-up shop, it’s the essential shop for paper bags, and useful things like clips for securing your tarpaulins and tablecloths against the wind).
Folgate Street is a narrow cobbled lane leading from Spitalfields towards Shoreditch High Street, and near the end on the left is a terrace of five-storey Georgian townhouses. One of these had an illuminated gas lamp above the front door, which was decorated with Christmas evergreens and ribbons, and a queue was already forming outside.
We joined the queue, and the nephew amused himself by tying his uncle to a lamppost with his scarf. After a few minutes’ wait, the front door was unlocked, and our host emerged and addressed us. Only ten people at a time could be admitted to the house for a visit which would last up to an hour.
Walking through the front door of 18 Folgate Street is like stepping through a picture frame into an Old Master Painting. We were told that the house is not a conventional museum; there are no ropes and no explanatory descriptions.
We were asked not to touch anything, not to take photographs, and not to speak, as we allowed the house to work its magic.
The shutters are mostly closed to light from outside, and the ten rooms are lit only be candles and open fires.
letting the magic in
We were directed to descend to the basement. The first room is a scullery; in almost total darkness, as our eyes became accustomed to the gloom, we could just discern the movement of a pitch black cat (who we later learned is called Madge). Then we entered the kitchen, warmed and lit by the kitchen range and a few candles, where we were intrigued by the cluttered kitchen table, food being prepared or half-eaten, and the dresser containing the household’s china.
We made our way upstairs to make the acquaintance of the inhabitants…..
In the main reception room on the ground floor, the Piano Nobile, the table is laid with an unfinished meal. A coat and wig are draped over the back of one of the chairs, as if its occupant has only just left the room. Sometimes you will hear movement from the room upstairs, or the murmur of voices from the next room. Often there will be the sound of horses’ hooves from outside, the song of a canary, or merely the slow ticking of a clock. The residents are at home, but never quite in plain sight.
The residents are the imaginary Jervis family, French Huguenots, who might have inhabited the house in the early 18th century. They are the invention of Dennis Severs, a deeply eccentric American who bought the near-derelict house in 1979, and set about sleeping in each of its ten rooms to absorb their aura, before furnishing them with his finds from antique and bric-a-brac dealers, and the skips of the old Spitalfields market.
18 Folgate Street, otherwise known as Dennis Severs’ house, is his construct, a portal into another age; its effect was memorably described by David Hockney as one of the world’s great opera experiences.
The nephew was entranced; the last room was the parlour, decorated for a Victorian Christmas, and it was hard to get him out, as he looked and looked and looked, discovering detail after detail.
While there were no descriptive signs, there were pieces of paper scattered around, quoting the house’s motto:
“Either you see it, or you don’t”
Dennis Severs bequeathed the house to The Spitalfields Trust, who have continued to run it since his death in 1999.
For information on booking a visit, go to www.dennissevershouse.co.uk where you can also order a copy of his book, “18 Folgate Street, The Tale of a House in Spitalfields”.