I was doing a search on town houses that I might be able to visit in my local area of London when I came across Dennis Severs’ House at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields. My previous visit to Hylands House in Essex was supposed to be for part 3, but on reading that part 4 required a visit to a Neoclassical house I realised I that needed to replace that part 3 visit with another. I’m not yet decided whether this visit to 18 Folgate Street is that replacement, (probably not because it is a house of an artist which was on the list of places NOT to visit) but the idea of visiting what I thought was an intact 18thC house was an opportunity too good to miss out on whilst studying the 18th C!
Unlike traditional visits to museum/houses, this has been created as more of an ‘experience’, (a bit like the London Dungeons is an experience but this is much more subtle), and as such there are no roped off sections. The American artist Dennis Severs, bought the house in 1979 and set about creating the house as a living 18th Century house, which he lived in with no modern amenities such as electricity etc, which he could show people round as a way to make a living. He wanted people to be able to walk through the picture frame of an old 18th C masterpiece into his house. He used his visitors’ imaginations as his canvas. He wanted to create his vision of ‘home’, and what a home needs most is a family so he made one up, and their backstory, based in the factual history of the area of Spitalfields, family of Huguenot silk-weavers from 1724 to the start of the 20th Century, so as you step into the hallway and pay your cash, you’re directed down to the basement and then up thought the house following their story, through the generations, “the sights, smells and sounds of the house take you into their lives” (Dennis Severs house, 2016). There is no guide, as you may have in a traditional museum, because it was Severs intension that you use your senses as your guide, detecting the changes in light, smell and sound that he has created (however, these days there are custodians standing on every floor to sort of guide you to the next bit and also make sure you’re not taking pictures or touching anything you shouldn’t be).
Dennis Severs was born in California in 1948 (and died in London in 1999). He came to live in England in 1967 after falling in love with the England he saw in old black and white movies and started out running tours of London in a horse-drawn carriage. He noticed that the clip clop of the horses hooves draw the tourists back in time, into an atmosphere of the past, so when he bought 18 Folgate Street, (a run-down silk-weaver’s house backing onto Spitalfields market), he created his own ‘still-life drama’, he was trying to recreate that effect for himself and his visitors. He slept in each of the houses ten rooms to sense the atmosphere that each room had and then set about amplifying that so that ordinary people might see what he saw. He had no money so everything was done originally on the cheap, he scavenged loudspeakers from the backs of discarded TV sets to playback recorded sounds he needed (put in under floorboards) to create the impression of other people in the house (members of his Huguenot family), he ate what he found discarded in the markets, and used the wooden pallets he found there to heat his food over real fires which burnt in the original fireplaces. This is as far as I got into the book by David Severs about his house (he has a very verbose and quirky style of writing yet still entertaining) before the time for my visit arrived but the following ‘plot’ from the house’s website in David’s own words much more quickly summaries the expected experience:
This is the original text as written by Dennis Severs:
The house’s ten rooms harbour ten ‘spells’ that engage the visitor’s imagination in moods that dominated the periods between 1724 – 1914. Your senses are your guide.
Room One: The Cellar. You begin in the dark by discovering a crater in which are fragments of St Mary’s Spital, AD 1197, and hence the name “Spitalfields”. An instinct should then draw you toward the more alluring light and warmth of its opposite: Room Two, The Kitchen – which addresses your simplest state of consciousness: your Soul. Here – in every object – form and function are at one, so that with nothing to explain, you may simply “be”. N.B. – like a contented infant.
In Room Three: The Eating Parlour on the front ground floor, infancy is awakened by enlightenment, and – as in adolescence – opinions are formed and sides taken. The room consists of bold contrasts; back or forth – even the colours complement the ‘clink-clank’ of the primitive brass clock: black or white, green or white, blue or white, red or white.
Like Baroque politics in the wake of the Civil War: Catholic or Protestant, ‘Whig’ or ‘Tory’ – ‘King George or King James’, Man or Nature, Man… or Woman – no peace: black or white – nothing between.
Another instinct will lift you – and your mind – above such strife in the same way that you might lift your head if someone should throw a punch. You join smart Georgians in rising above low prejudice to move up the stairs and onto the piano noble. This high and ‘noble’ platform is now referred to as the ‘first’ – meaning best – floor, and is the high ground on which order and refinement can harbor, safe from the bully below. Up here, lighter ‘rococo’ touches celebrate the end of heavy Baroque, and you arrive within the light of reason to be greeted by the sight of things so delicate that they would never survive a night on the street. All this to sharpen your skill at balance so that the fear of your own clumsiness might persuade you to take closer care and join the quest for harmony for which the mid-to-late 18th Century was so committed.
A quick lesson may be learned from ‘the morning after’ in Room Four, The Smoking Room, as to the practical disadvantages of all-male extremes; pure Hogarth. Hopefully, Reason will have made the previous night’s views – like the room’s more subdued colours – more moderate. It is the reforming climate of this aftermath that prepares you for further refinement. In Room Five, the withdrawing room, men and women are brought together in a regulated state of harmony. Balanced out by a female presence, things and thoughts are softened to become ‘mannered’, and what you imagine here – might, like the room itself – be disciplined to the symmetry, scale and proportions provided by your own human form. With limb and life aligned – perfection. Alas, ‘Neo-classicism’.
All too perfect? Well, though we may REASON back and forth, we FEEL high or low, and another instinct – this time a feeling – should join in to kindle the curiosity, to travel up and see more: things more personal and distinctive. It is here that the heart is now approached, and done so first by the sensation of things arranged vertically as opposed to horizontally – as they were downstairs. And how exciting – too, the mystery and gloom of a pointing ‘gothic’ print room constructed of hand-cut paper, pasted and arranged by the Jervis children.
Now “I think” should develop into “I feel”, and the colours in the Chamber and Boudoir are the pastel hues of sea and sky – to lift the imagination and inspire it on. So intimate – femininity, family, children’s toys and humour – as well as evidence of ‘a passion for’ – ephemera, oriental porcelain and flowers. The idea being to warm cold Reason so that you might look down on the same primitive and brutal world from which you once rose to see it as ‘picturesque’. In doing so you enter the back door to the romantic age from 1780 – 1837.
However, on the Top Floor, now stripped of any prettiness and filled with lodgers, what good are Reason and Romance on their own? You are 100 years old; you are wise. And with harder times and the Spitalfields silk trade sweating towards its collapse – a visitor joins with an age to reach more deeply – through sentiment to the Soul. A sense of angst is necessary to understanding the house’s next generation of Early-Victorian reformers.
Only now can the clutter in the small Back Parlour on the Ground Floor – Room Ten – make real sense: interpreted as the rich ornament on the Albert Memorial was once intended: as representative of the call to the wisdom of the inner-soul for help in dealing with the outer life. The Journey is therefore like a life itself: a full circle – Soul to Soul. And when the clutter into the Parlour loses the virtue it once advertised, then an instinct will suggest that it should be got rid of; and once emptied – the room painted white. And so, the Eleventh Room… was. In that room you are at home.
The visitor’s poor mind is thus taken up and down, back and forth, and finally in and out. However, if all this you missed – don’t worry. Those in the past were also dizzy and dumbstruck by the same series of spells that, though they conformed, they probably missed it all too. House motto: “you either see it or you don’t”. Take it from me, a bystander, that when you are under the spell of your own time you are as interesting to watch as were those before; it is always the same plot: Soul – Soul. It was your humanity in response to the house that adds life to it and makes tending it so worthwhile. You are our television.
Dennis Severs 1948 – 1999
I went during a Monday Lunchtime visit, you don’t book for this one so even though I arrived at 12:01 there was a queue and I missed the first entry. I wanted to take a photo of the outside but there were too many people in the way. They only allow 10 in per time and they stagger entry. I took a photo of the front door over the heads of the others. You’re requested not to take photos and to walk around in silence to be experience the atmosphere. I only had a ten minute wait (was concerned it’d be 45mins but they are quite responsive on twitter and said it shouldn’t be more than 15-20mins. They don’t take cards so I was glad I had the cash on me!
The house is only lit by candlelight so it’s remarkably dark even during the day. I assume that in the evening they light a lot more candles. So it’s probably for the best they don’t allow photos because they’d be rubbish anyway in such low light. Their press office allowed me to use the pictures below as an aid memoir of my visit, I wish now that I’d taken notes but I was trying to experience the house as designed rather than be an academic note taker looking at ‘things’, which Servers severely frowned upon in his book.
I found out pretty quickly that it was best to be at the back of the group you entered with, as then you can linger in the rooms, it’s much more atmospheric when you’re there alone and walk around in silence. The cellar is very spooky, with the sound effects of a beating heart and the cold damp smell. Knowing that the ruins of the Spitalfields leper hospital is partially dug up by my feet didn’t either, goodness kows how many people had died in that spot over the centuries! When everyone is around you the recorded sounds go unnoticed because of the tourist clomp on the wooden floor. There’s a museum pace to that clomp which ruins the effect created by the house.
The imaginary Jervis family, who fled persecution in France in 1688, and bought the house in 1724, were always out of sight but the sounds and scents evoke a time or a scene. The floorboards creak (not just with tourist feet), and the real fires crackled. Distant horses hooves reminded me of his book and of past times. There were other sound effects of ticking clocks (could gave been the actual clocks), horse and carriage, bells, canon booms (the king is dead).
The first room I visited was downstairs was the kitchen (it was supposed to be the cellar but i didnt notice the doorway until afterwards on the way out), it was chockful of china, had real food and candles on the table and was warm and comforting.
TODO: finish write up, other notes:
– mirrors allow you to imagine yourself seated at the little chair with the wig and perfume in the master bedroom.
Severs, D. (2002) 18 Folgate Street :the tale of a house in Spitalfields. Chatto & Windus/ London
Dennis Severs house. (2016) Welcome to Dennis Severs’ house At: http://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk
(Accessed on 11 Nov 16)