diamond geezer

 Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Dennis Severs' House

Location: 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, E1 6BX [map]
Open: Sunday afternoons; Monday evenings (by candlelight); certain Monday lunchtimes (noon-2pm)
Admission: £12, £8 or £5 (depending on timing)
brief summary: still life drama
Website: www.dennissevershouse.co.uk
Time to set aside: an hour

Dennis Severs' House, in its Christmas fineryJust north of Spitalfields market, in a street that's still half eighteenth century, you'll find an old silk weaver's house with red shutters. Look for the lantern above the front door and, if it's lit, pull on the bell to the right. After a short wait (and upon payment of the requisite fee) you'll be welcomed politely inside. Pay attention to the pep talk, then sssh, not a sound! The building's dead owner would be most disappointed if you uttered even a single word during your visit to his abode. For this is Dennis Severs' house - a unique historical re-enactment where the characters are all in your head. Look past the motley collection of objects, soak in the atmosphere, and step back.

When Dennis moved to Folgate Street 30 years ago, this was no desirable gentrified neighbourhood. But he saw potential in a derelict silk weaver's house at number 18, snapped it up and then set about restoring it in a most unusual way. Different rooms would showcase different periods in the timeline of the house, from the early 18th to the early 20th century. He created an imaginary family, the Jervises, then littered each room with furniture and artefacts to reflect how they might have lived. And then, most brilliantly eccentric of all, Dennis moved in. No electric lights, no central heating, just one man living in the higgledy-piggledy past.

Ten years after Dennis's premature death, his house remains a fascinating and idiosyncratic museum. Visitors wander round from cellar to attic, ten rooms in total, and immerse themselves in what can perhaps best be described as a living experience. Each room is laid out as if the Jervis family have just walked out, and might return at any minute. Flickering candles, washing hanging over the stairs, half eaten snacks - all are hints of a life just departed. And sssh! Your silence is a crucial part of the all-enveloping ambience. Floorboards may creak and distant music may play, but modern voices should play no part whatsoever in your interpretation of events. As written notes from Dennis posted around the house declare, those who feel the need to chatter just "don't get it".

It is, unfortunately, impossible to conduct the tour in complete silence. The house's guardians need to direct you from one floor to the next ("in here first", "now down to the cellar", "upstairs please") and can also be heard whispering to one another about organisational matters when they think you're not listening. Try to block out their occasional mutterings and instead embrace alternative sensory overload. Authentic smells abound, particularly of food and spices in the dining room or kitchen. There are ornaments and ephemera aplenty to keep your eyes enthused, and the trick is to imagine not what they are but why they're there. Another regular printed message from Dennis provides the house's rationale - "You either see it or you don't".

Some of the rooms have a woman's touch - the fictional Mrs Jervis is a strong character throughout. Other rooms are more masculine - the Smoking Room, for example, allows you to step into the drunken aftermath of a scene from a Hogarth painting. The attic rooms are quite bleak, and (I'm seeing it, I'm seeing it) the old four poster's mattress must have been damned cold and uncomfortable to sleep on. Watch out for two modern residents - a parrot that lives in a cage in the front parlour window, and Whitechapel the cat. But it's the former owner we have to thank for the genuine depth of detail throughout Dennis Severs' House. Eccentric, enchanting, illuminating and, yes, unique. The house is the performer here, and you are cordially invited to spend a rare hour as its audience.
by tube: Liverpool Street

D is also for...
» Danson House, Bexley
» Design Museum (I've been)
» Dr Johnson's House (I've been)
» Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (I've been) (small but perfectly formed)
» Dorwich House Museum, Kingston
» Dulwich Picture Gallery (I've been)

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