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Dennis Severs' House: Capturing an Imaginary Moment in Time

by Grant Eustace

Dennis Severs'
House'Unique' is a description that is applied widely to historic buildings in London that have survived into our own day. To those that stretch back to the Middle Ages and beyond, for example, like Westminster Hall and Westminster Abbey. Or the remarkable clutch of highly-individual churches that Sir Christopher Wren built after the Great Fire of 1666, culminating in that towering work of genius, St Paul's Cathedral.

The word is equally applicable to less grand structures, like the 17th century timber-framed buildings in the Strand opposite the Law Courts, and the Georgian town houses all over London that are distinctive for the blue plaques on their walls telling of the famous person who lived there.

But sometimes it can be a struggle to recapture more than fleetingly the spirit of those buildings' times. Outside it can be because of the continual noise of traffic, and inside the throng of tourists. Or because the 21st century intrudes: signs and fire exits in the big visitor attractions, or modern decoration glimpsed through the clear glass windows of period homes that are still privately owned.

But there is one London building that not only consciously sets out to retain the flavour of a past era, but does so by making it seem as if you have entered that era and interrupted those actually living in it. Candles lit. Fires burning in the grates. Food, from baked potatoes to boiled eggs, half-eaten. Beds unmade. Evencsuch attention to detail -- a chamber-pot not yet emptied. In that respect Dennis Severs' House, too, is unique.

It is a terraced Georgian house in Folgate Street, London E1. That is one of the many short and often narrow streets that lie just to the east of Liverpool Street Station, in the area known as Spitalfields. Given that location, the house is unusual, anyway, in having survived to the present. Perhaps developers, who have been frantically busy all around it, could be kept at bay because of the intrinsic importance of a building from the 18th century. But the bombs in the Second World War did not discriminate, and this was an area hit hard and often.

Dennis Severs was an artist who, somewhat eccentrically, enjoyed living in the house much as its original occupants would have done. From that developed the idea of letting others enjoy the atmosphere in the way that he did, in what he called 'Still Life Drama' -- as if you could walk through into a painting. The basic idea is to stimulate the visitor's senses, so that his or her imagination supplies what is not there.

There is a good deal there, of course, in ten rooms across five floors. And each of the rooms is cluttered to the point of claustrophobia with essentials and some collectables as well. That begins in the packed cellar kitchen, reached down the original wooden stair that clearly pre-dates any concept of building regulations about safety, and with a ceiling so low that anyone of six foot is stooping.

The majority of the rooms recall the same 18th-century period. They include a smoking room modelled on the scene in the Hogarth painting on the wall of a drinking bout, right down to the overturned bottle and spilled wine. There is a withdrawing room for more genteel behaviour, an eating parlour, and bedrooms whose most abiding impression is again of how much is packed into the limited space.

The top floor, though, comes forward in time, preserved as the 19th-century home of lodgers, a poor, struggling family of weavers whose workplace is the even more cramped loft space above them. Here the flavour is strongly Dickensian (even to the Tiny Tim-sized crutches beside the fire), and it is something of a shock to realise that this is not the set of a film, but how it really was: one room serving for an entire family.

To supplement the physical, there are smells -- of food in rooms where there are meals being taken, for example, and scented candles upstairs. And there is sound, such as the faint voice of the master of the house instructing a servant, and the chirrup of a caged bird. Most effective are the noises apparently outside rooms facing the street of passing horse-drawn carriages, and the servants' bell ringing in the cellar. (Especially if you are in the cellar at the time, and do not know it is due to ring.)

Dennis Severs' House

So how effective is the illusion? Certainly actors preparing for a period role have been known to sit in the House and soak up the 'vibrations'. There they have some advantage on the rest of us, though, since they do so on their own. The House rule is silence, but even in a small group there is usually someone who cannot resist a comment, and a whisper can be enough to break the spell. Your own movement, too, on the creaky floors, does not help.

But it is nevertheless an experience like no other. This is because of the way the House is frozen at a moment in the past -- but not as a museum house in the usual sense, with everything prettified and tidy. The essential difference here is that strong feeling of a house being lived in. It is just that the people are not there.

Above all, it brings home the scarcely tolerable lack of space and privacy that was the norm for the occupants of a house such as this, and the many more like it. And if you are there at night -- Dennis Severs' House is open only at certain specific times -- you can only wonder at the difference, the pools of darkness and the shadows, when your sole source of interior light is candles.

'Time-capsule' is another of those over-used words. But it definitely does feel, when you emerge back into Folgate Street, as if you are returning to your own time after a real visit to another era.

More Information:

Dennis Severs' House

Grant Eustace is a professional writer active in a variety of fields, from film and video through print to radio and on-line content, the last two of these principally for the BBC World Service. He also works with -- and speaks regularly at international gatherings of -- the Tourism and Cultural Identity Committee of the World Trade Centers Association.
Article and photos © 2008 Grant Eustace


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