Dennis Severs’ House. Facade by Alan Williams**
A friend told me about Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields, and it sounded intriguing – not so much a museum as an experience. So Esmerelda*, my trusted friend for all things cultural, and I went along on Monday evening.
Concealed from the street, we stepped Alice-in-Wonderland style into an old, candlelit world. Dennis Severs, an artist (I imagine quite an eccentric one), bought this house in the late ’40s and lived as if part of its early 18th century life. The house has a story – it looks, sounds and smells as if you have just walked in on a family of Hugenot silk-weavers, the Jervis family. It captures a moment in time – glasses filled with sherry, cups with coffee, coats thrown over chairs, beds rumpled, smells lingering in the air (camomile and rose in the bedroom, coffee, sweets, burning fires), sounds of life outside, broken cups, half-eaten toast, fires flickering, books open at the page it was being read, its reader throwing down their glasses before they left.
The historical details reminded me of the Georgian House in Edinburgh, which replicates life in the 18th century. However, maybe because of its location in East London, or the fact it was founded by an artist, this place is more of an artistic experience – like poetry or painting, relying on the visitor’s imagination to bring it to life. There are notes left round the house to remind you to use your imagination, your senses, to take it all in. They call it a “Still Life Drama” and their motto is “you either see it or you don’t” which made me slightly paranoid that I wasn’t seeing “it”, whatever “it” was – but I certainly found it a beautiful and atmospheric experience.
I loved Lady Jervis’ room with her dressing table and jewels, the table where she took her coffee, and amazing four-poster bed (I imagined how nice it would be to awake in my four-poster while my servant brought me breakfast tea and crumpets on a silver tray…); the grand drawing room with its huge marble fireplace, elaborate curtains and amazing cornices; the servants’ quarters with their mess and dirt and cold; the smaller room on the 1st floor where the painting above the fireplace resembles the room itself, or the room is the painting. It was then that I felt like I was part of the painting, an actor in a film.
Drawing room by James Brittain**
We realised with sadness that in the midst of this expanding City of chrome, high-rise and glass, exist these beautiful old houses on cobbled streets with their marble fireplaces, cornices and wood, and most of all their histories and stories, many of which are being re-developed. History buffs, City types, architecture fans or those visiting Spitalfields market or Brick Lane, I’d definitely recommend you pop in.
Dennis Severs’ house costs £12 for the “silent night” every Monday evening by candlelight (I’d recommend – very atmospheric), £8 every Sunday between 12 and 4pm, and £5 every first and third Monday lunchtime.
* friends are being asked to choose names for anonymity reasons, although I wish I was friends with someone called Esmerelda…
** You cannot take photos at the house because it distracts from the experience. Therefore, all photos were taken from the house’s flickr page with kind permission from the administrator: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dennissevershouse.