Dennis Severs’ House (Central London): 18th century history in silence

A number of people have asked me, have you been to Dennis Severs’ house and I’ve always said ‘no, not yet’, until now.  I just hadn’t got there, and the hefty entrance fee (for me who usually uses HHA and NT membership to get in) didn’t put me off, despite it obviously being no Chatsworth.

This is one that needs a long preamble

I did however visit this misnomer of an historic house (I’m not even sure if I’m supposed to call it that) with some trepidation.  Partly because the house tour is conducted in complete silence (really, although we whispered when the wardens were out of sight) and partly because when I enquired about photography (innocently because I thought there would be some great interiors filled with stuff I wouldn’t be able to take in with just my eyes on the day and partly because the house’s own website itself has section called ‘filming and photography’), I was told “remember, you’re taking a journey into the past and if you take pictures you’re destroying the integrity of the experience“. I also got a lecture about destroying delicate materials with my flash.

I wasn’t planning on using flash (I never do) but I did want something to look back at because I was expecting busy rooms with too much to remember in my aging mind alone.  The House’s flicker page offers some insight.

Ho hum.  Perhaps this defensive first encounter of mine with the house was in part a result of their frustration with ‘visiting tourists’ and ‘company director’s wives’, neither of whom are recommended to visit.  I am neither but they weren’t to know.

Again, referring to the website, it says ‘be warned, it is a mistake to trivialise or pigeonhole the experience into any of the mothball camps: “heritage”, “local history”, “antiques” “lifestyle” or “museum”.  The idea is to enter into the world of a family, who are always just out of sight but, for example, an half-eaten meal is on the table, and experience walking through the frame of an old master into a picture.

I’m a little scared of them 😉 going on.  However, I must say I was expecting a little bit of pretension.   D would have hated it (and the price – D scoffed when I said how much and then tried to defend it).  I didn’t take D.

I opened my mind.  How is one to grow if one doesn’t?

I should go on to the house itself at No 18 Folgate Street…

The house

The bones of the house are circa 1720 but the fireplace in one of the sitting rooms says 1685 – a sign that the wiring and mod cons in this house were taken out by American collector Severs and replaced with his collection of decent Georgian pieces, a lot of dust and ash, and some odds and sods that the dustman might pick up off the tip and bring home.  This isn’t a true mecca of an original house, not a real ‘time capsule’, but a piece of art created to represent a period in time.

The house tells the story of domestic life in a London townhouse near Spitalfields Market during the 18th and early 19th century.

Although one is asked to imagine that the house is the home of the Jervis family, who are Huguenot weavers (I remembered that Huguenots occupied Sutton House), while the first three floors could easily be that of one family, the attic is quite different and represents a different way of life: when things go wrong or money is in short supply and thriftyness alone isn’t the answer.  The family need to take in lodgers and the attic rooms are represented as occupied by two lodgers.

The house in fact sits on the site of Spitalfields Hospital and some ruins are show in the cellar (if you can see – it’s rather dark and there’s only one candle).

There are two rooms on each of the five floors (including cellar and attic) making 10 in total.

All but one are Georgian, although the top two embrace life on the turn of death of the Prince Regent and the accession of Queen Victoria – I was wondering why I thought there was a picture of the young Queen on the wall (was I being clever to think ‘ooh, there’ a mistake – out of period’) when I then read that the room had been left on the eve that its occupants discovered the King’s death.  Nothing like royal allegiance – there’s lots of royal mugs in the Victorian sitting room on the ground floor (including one for Kate and Wills!).  I guessed this room had to be Victorian due to the gas lamps which were notably absent from elsewhere in the house.  I’m not sure why it was taken out of being Georgian/Regency.

In each of the rooms the fires are lit, the food is fresh and candles are burning.  However, given how the house prides itself in not being a museum I did find it strange to see in the handout I received as I left that there was mention of a cat and a canary.  Indeed, I spotted quite a few dead mallards hanging on the walls and a lot of empty bird cages and was thinking as I walked around that it would be good to have some real birds.  Maybe Mr Severs himself had a cat (he died in 1999 and I’ve seen an article on the Spitalfields Life website from 2010 showing a cat).  I think a few birds and a cat would be all for the better.

Maybe the cat was out in the garden catching a mouse or (as Keats would say), having its fur mauled by many a maid somewhere near Spitalfields Market.  I find myself diverted (this house has a habit of doing this to someone)…

I also think that for £12 it would be all the more fun to be able to drink a glass of something in the room which I enjoyed the best.

That room for me was the Hogarth’s room (seen above), where the scene from the Hogarth picture (of a debauched, drunken evening) hanging above the fireplace has been recreated.  The punch bowl, the mess of tobacco, the tipped bottles, the broken glasses, it’s all there and the idea is to imagine yourself stepping through into the picture as the fire crackles away in the background.  This was something I’ve never seen attempted elsewhere and I really liked it (despite wanting to take out a dustpan and brush and sweep up).

The basement houses a kitchen and I’m a bit bored by kitchens because I’ve seen 100s of them.  This one was no different although I did like there was a stone sink still in situ and it was interesting to see just how dark it would have been down there.

Don’t be tempted to think the tap in the kitchen (the sole water point in the house) might be much later.  I first thought this and although I wasn’t able to check this with any of the staff (because there’s no talking in the house and we didn’t pay £45 each for a visit where questions are allowed), I do know that during the 18th century households were connected to water supplies, though the water supply was intermittent and many houses had lead tanks in the kitchen to store water (I saw one of these at 68 Dean Street but not in 18 Folgate Street).

Next to the kitchen is what I would call a junk room, housing debris of the household and the hospital ruins.

I scampered quickly up into the front dining room (seen below), staged as though the master of the house has just left (wig still hanging on his chair; food half-eaten (wonder which member of staff gets to eat the other half?); napkin crumpled on the chair).  The mistress of the house, Mrs Jervis, is introduced – a frugal and thrifty type has made the room a little haven of baroque elegance.  The decor is not overly expensive – for example shells are used to front candle stands on the bottom of picture frames, throwing the light onto the picture and masking the candle itself.  I’m sure there’s trellis though on the lower half of the windows in here.

Up to the Hogarth room and the main sitting room, darkened by window coverings but with some very funky chairs with protruding wide arms (see below – source www.visitthecity.co.uk).  The best part of this room is the pile of lavender in the corner behind one of the chairs, presumably to mask the smells of its dirty inhabitants (upstairs in the poorer quarters they just hand a bit of orange and some cinnamon from a string about the fireplace – the same tiny fireplace on which they have to cook).

After my posting about Print Rooms and my lamenting that I couldn’t recall any examples other than at Stratfield Saye, as I walked back onto the landing I noticed prints had been pasted onto the walls on a green background.  So that’s a second print room (or landing) I’ve seen.

There’s also some candied fruits on the landing.  I’m not sure about this being where they’d have been kept, but there is fake ivy on the fruit stand, perhaps not a period detail.

The next floor is two bedrooms, one with a complete mass of blue & white china that presumably the inhabitant collected because Queen Mary (herself Dutch) was porcelain mad.  It looks like a dusting nightmare (not that it may have ever been dusted) and maybe this piling high of the china is reason enough not to have a cat?  There’s also shells and bits and bobs stuck on the wall.

The other bedroom I quite like – a nice sleigh bed, dressing table, view to the rear over the garden.  This is where I would have hidden if I were to live here.

By now I was getting used to the signs around the house asking the visitor if they had yet stopped looking at objects and started thinking about what they were saying.  Well, I’ve seen nicer objects so I was indeed thinking about what they were saying rather than going to myself, ‘now that’s a nice regency bow backed chair’ (though I did think that too at one point).  In fact, most of the time I was just thinking (especially when I saw bits of candle everywhere and wood piled under windows) ‘this is how people lived and they had little choice’.

Upstairs the walls start to crumble, washing is hanging and Calke Abbey came to mind.  This floor represents the poorer aspect of society when things turn bad, houses are divided so one family lives in each room and no one cleans up the candle wax, washes the bedding or has funds to fix the bowing roof.

I’m not sure it’s necessary in the house and I would have preferred to see the servant’s rooms, but then I probably was meant to get an experience from seeing how someone who could be well to do one minute could end up living in an attic the next if, say, the man of the house died.

Source: http://home-biba.blogspot.co.uk

As one leaves (down the stairs, painted with black walls, looking out to the back wall on which sits a stone pineapple, presumably the type of thing a Georgian would have stuck there to show they were wealthy/sophisticated and could afford pineapples and noticing (I noticed anyway) how at one window the curtains have been stapled to the wall to hold them up (not period staples I imagine!), one pops into the Victorian sitting room and crosses back over the hallway painted with a large red and black diamond floor out through the door into modernity.

Conclusions

I truly adore Georgian architecture and the townhouse fascinates me.  However, as I looked back at the red shutters (more American flat pack house than 18th century London townhouse), I felt sadness because if I owned 18 Folgate Street I wouldn’t be able to preserve it as a time capsule, the roof falling in, paint peeling, windows covered in cobwebs, the light obscured by window coverings.  I’d want to shout about it and make it beautiful (in a period sort of way).

It’s a bit like not allowing a beautiful Persian cat to be a show cat because you want to show it what life was like before cat shows existed (although that is probably a very rude comparison).  I’m sure the owners of the house would say it’s a good job I don’t own it then!  However, when you see below where it came from, a lot has been achieved.

All this said, the Dennis Severs experience of a house has been my favourite Georgian townhouse experience to date.

Those peeps at the Charles Dickens House (I haven’t posted my diary yet – it’s too scathing and needs some editing) should visit and consider removing the linoleum from their stairs.

18 Folgate Street DOES capture at-home from about 1680-1845 in many of its components.  For many housing estate-dwellers with furnishings from IKEA or John Lewis the preservation of squalor will be shocking.  No, it’s not clean or bright; there aren’t smooth lines; the elaborate baroque ceilings (adorned with fruit wreaths) are darkened by smoke from the fires; the stairs are worn; the windows are dirty; the paint IS peeling; cobwebs haven’t been touched.  But for me, it just reminded me of my grandmother’s house, which is not at all dissimilar from this house except for the lack of candles.  I could live like that, I just wouldn’t want to.

And how do I feel about this house?  Well, I’d say go and I don’t say that about a lot of houses.  However, I won’t be taking D, who would hate it and say it is a dirty mess and needs a good tidy up – and there will be people who think like that.

Why I liked it was because it captures a moment in the development of the home life of the lower echelons of London society and whereas many homes focus on the aristocracy (not least because they often are/were the home of the aristocracy), for someone like me who has often read about working class or lower middle class life in London during the 18th century, like Sam in Quantum Leap before me, I really did walk through the picture frame into another time for 45 minutes one Saturday afternoon.

When visited: 2012

Theme tune: My Old Man’s a Dustman

Stars out of 5 (house): *** (but 5 for originality)

Stars out of 5 (garden):   N/A

Nearest town:  Central London (just behind Spitalfield’s Market/nr Liverpool St)

Website: www.dennissevershouse.co.uk

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16 thoughts on “Dennis Severs’ House (Central London): 18th century history in silence

  1. I really liked reading this, and as I’ve never had the opportunity to visit just yet I’m glad to hear of someone else (other than Amanda Vickery and Lucy Worsley) who has made the trip. Your review gives it another layer. I’ll have to save the £12 entrance fee though! Thanks for posting this – as folk say.

    1. i would (sucking in breath) say it is worth the £12 and would give you great ideas for the National Trust exhibition because it is about as far removed a house I’ve seen for a house that isn’t actually someone’s current home compared to NT stuff. there wasn’t even a guide book available to buy.

    1. and I really enjoyed writing it. came home at the w/e and plonked it all in a post for fear of forgetting the atmosphere and all the details. this house has been the most exciting thing (housewise) I’ve seen since I was faced with 21 canalettos in their original home at Woburn Abbey last August.

  2. I loved visiting this house. As a life-long lover of history, an author of historical fiction, with a past history of a life in the theatre and some historical reenactment, I found it about as close as I’m likely to get to actually stepping back in time.

  3. It’s only £7 on two Mondays in the month. I loved the house – yes there are some inconsistencies, but just step into the frame and enjoy being there. This place is unique in my experience, the only place that isn’t tidy and sterile, and there are few houses where you can really get a sense of what daily life was like and of the people who lived there. £7 Monday makes it even easier to relax and soak it up.

    1. indeed. good point for anyone free on the week. thanks. sadly, although I dream of a 3 day “working week” I find myself not free to play out Mon-Friday due to ‘the job’. If only the Georgian Group didn’t make such a thing of having all their trips on weekdays. Sigh. One day I will be 70 and retired. One day.

  4. I’ve heard lots of good things about this house, it really intrigues me. I really must make time to go and see it soon. Working in a house that is genuinely lived in makes me even more interested in places like this that create their own atmosphere so well. Thanks for the article, fascinating as always!

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