…is what one gets at the Dennis Severs House, or 18, Folgate Street, Spitalields, E1. Not quite a fleeting glimpse of those people who have just left the room, who were eating that meal just before you walked in, or smoking that pipe, or baking that loaf. Whose wig sits on the wing of the chair? Or whose floral perfume scents the formal withdrawing room?
18, Folgate Street is an 18th century house (1724) which has been preserved and restored and, during his lifetime, lived in, by Dennis Severs, the American artist and storyteller, who died, aged only 51, in 1999. Twenty years after purchasing the house he saw the Spitalfields Trust buy the house and commit to keeping it going, when on his death-bed. It’s still going twenty years later.
The House is chock-full of antique furniture and fol-de-rols, china, costumes, tapestry and tat, but all in period. So is the lighting, mostly candlelight, but some gas-light in the Victorian rooms. We visited on a sunny Monday lunchtime so it was relatively light, but the house is most often open in the evenings, from 5 – 9pm Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and on Sundays ( see Tours ). I imagine that then it is even more atmospheric, though it would also be more difficult to see the multiplicity of objects on show, often close together.
Severs created an imaginary family of Huguenot silk-weavers called Jervis to inhabit the house and it is their homely detritus (and comestibles) that one comes across as one climbs the narrow stairs, either down to the kitchen and cellar, where there are the supposed fragments of St Mary’s, Spital (1197) and the warmth of an iron range and the smell of…what is that smell? Or upwards, through fashionable London entertaining to the elaborate boudoir and then up beneath the eaves to the penurious lodgers’ rooms.
Scent is something the House does well, as is sound – the ticking of a clock, the half-caught chatter, like Eliot’s rose garden ‘full of children, Hidden excitedly, containing laughter’ in Burnt Norton. Visitors are asked to walk around the house, on a pre-determined route, in silence, so that this sound track has full effect. There are wordless guiders, who will direct you if you go wrong.
There are other symbols of life lived in the house. The half lemon on the mantlepiece, the half drunk glasses of sherry on the card and occasional tables, the cheese and bread in the kitchen. I like to think of the guiders going round each morning setting everything fresh into position, spraying the scents and lighting the candles ( there are piled candle ends in several rooms, today’s occupants being as thrifty as Madame Jervis could have been ).
It takes about 45 minutes to walk through the house and costs either £10 on Monday lunchtimes, or £15 in the evenings ( a guided tour is available for groups at £50 per person ). We arrived at about 12.45 on Monday lunchtime and had to wait for a further twenty minutes, in a queue, as only small numbers are allowed in the house at any one time. Once inside, you realise why ( people were smaller then ).
It’s an unusual and, for me, unique, experience and well worth visiting.
All photographs are from the House web-site, photography inside the House not being allowed.