Now, this is an interesting post for a number of reasons. Firstly, the rules of Dennis Severs’ House mean that I was unable to take photos of the interior space. Secondly, visitors are not permitted to speak in the house, so my recollections include no oral responses from other people. And thirdly, the building is like nowhere I have visited before – it exists somewhere between an installation, a museum and a series of snapshots of days gone by.
Dennis Severs bought 18 Folgate Street, in Spitalfields, in 1979. The house was in a state of great disrepair and, during his time living in the space, Severs painstakingly refurbished each room in a style from either the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Each of these rooms tells the story of the Jervis family; silk weavers who lived in the house between 1725 and 1919. Severs’ intention was to create a ‘still-life drama’, and throughout the house small notes remind visitors to focus on the constructed scenes, rather than individual objects.
As a visitor to this unusual space, one feels like an interloper. The member of staff who greeted me at the front door was extremely formal and swiftly directed me to a candle lit room; leaving me alone to wonder whether I ought to be there at all. The first thing that struck me was the intense aroma that filled the room: a mixture of strong port and spices. Then, as my eyes adjusted to the dim candle light, the still-life drama really came to life: a half peeled lemon; a smouldering fire; an abandoned clay pipe and a range of personal objects left in various places, suggesting that this interior’s occupants had only just withdrawn.
Each room is recreated perfectly, telling the story of members of the Jervis family at different times. As one travels through from room-to-room, and consequently period-to-period, the mood changes dramatically. One moment I felt calm, as I tentatively explored a room designed for reflection, and the next I felt gloomy, as I entered an oppressive attic space. Although I was not permitted to speak to visitors, the looks on their faces said enough. Some were deeply excited to be allowed into this world, while others looked confused and slightly concerned, not really sure what they had stumbled upon.
Dennis Severs’ House is remarkable. It is a space that is designed to be experienced – description just does not do it justice. Sounds, sights, smells and atmosphere immerse you in a series of tiny worlds. It is rare to feel the sense of exhilaration and slight fear that come from exploring a concealed personal space, especially as an adult. Dennis Severs’ House offers this rare opportunity with great success.
Photos of the incredible interior can be viewed on The Dennis Severs’ House Flicker page