I was a blank canvas for the Dennis severs house.
Like when you go to see a film at the cinema because you’d heard it was good, then deliberately avoid finding out more about it to retain surprise.
If you want to do the same thing then IT WAS GOOD now go and visit. But there is so much more I can say than that about this surprising and mysterious living house. The location of the ‘museum’ is well publicised, it’s even used as their twittle handle @18FolgateStreet (it’s hard to say something is a museum when someone still lives inside… but for my purposes it’s close enough); however you can easily walk past as their are no signs in front of the characterful house sitting just between Liverpool Street and Spitalfields.
But look for your host standing outside, presuming you have a booking you’ll be beckoned into the house following a quick speech which explains just enough about the house to intrigue you further. It is stressed this is still a living house, Dennis Severs’ labour of love and now passed on to a friend who continues to live in the rooms which have their own historical setting and identity.
As you enter you are told the family who occupy the house are at home, but you won’t see them, it is as though they have only just left and their presence still lingers on.
I was struck by the details present in every room, I certainly felt nothing was there by accident and it was all very authentic and designed to confront all of the senses, the mass of clutter to pour over, the sound effects playing eerily through speakers hidden around you, the smells of the real word burning fires, even the temperatures of the rooms will combine to cast you back.
The first room entered was a dining room, lit only by candles (I visited on an evening) I wondered just what people would do in this dimness? Too dark even to read a book, and thankfully there are no panels to interrupt what is a sensory experience more than an intellectual one. Having said that though, if you look around you will see the odd cryptic quote from the man whose vision the house embodies, Mr Severs, he explains: “This house is not what you see, but what you have only just missed and are being asked to imagine.”
The moments when I was one in the room were to savour, as there is a steady stream of other visitors who were soaking up their surroundings- and the attention to detail was terrific, in one room filled with memorabilia a glass of wine sits as if just poured, I had a sneaky smell and it was real. Unhindered by the rules of a traditional museum like the Geffrye, where every room is totally, academically accurate, Severs’ house playfully throws objects from another time, like a bit of chasrles and Diana on a mug in a room made to look much, much older.
Ascending I found the drawing room creepy, horse shoes clopping by the window were all very Jack the Ripper, but then again it was also homely, there was something very Christmassy about the crackle of the fire. Again the details are like puzzles. Why the broken cup? What are those things like seeds piled in the corner? And the cryptic quotes from severs do not dispel the curiosity, rather they add to it. The room was menacingly comfortable.
Onwards via a Hogarth inspired dining room, it was as if Severs was challenging you to be part of this historic scene, an abundance of mirrors allow you to see yourself in candlelight with history behind you, complimented by the tick-tock of a period grandfather clock, Severs called it “still life drama” and you are made to feel part of it.
The only movement in the master bedroom was the gentle slip of a log on the fire, underneath a mass of blue Chinese style vases, ascending further and on the second most top floor we encounter a loft we cannot enter and suddenly the warmth of each floor is interrupted by a cold draft and a stark contrast from opulent decorations to stark decay, slats poke from the ceiling like skeletal ribs. Explosions ring out around you without explanations as to why (there is a reason, if you ask the staff they’ll explain, but I preferred just to wonder). The structure of the house is in decay around you, partly a reminder of how much work the American Dennis Severs put into this living house and partly a vivid presentation of living conditions for many in Dickensian London, a portrait of the author hangs to make sure you understand, and it’s definitely more Bill Sykes than Brownlow.
This house was the perfect antidote to museums dominated by text or items in glass. It surrounds you, asks you not to learn but to feel and imagine. Working my way round in under an hour it was a wonderful surprise and I am genuinely excited about going back again.
Location: 18 Folgate Street, London E1 6BX
Entry: Between £7 – £14, with an ‘exclusive’ more expensive option available.
Opening Times: It’s a bit complicated, so check the website: http://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk/
Cover photo from rbakker.com