I never had the chance to meet Dennis Severs but he was a man after my own heart. The architectural historian Gavin Stamp described him as “one of those Americans in England who seemed to have arrived from nowhere, to have no past, no roots and who, so irritatingly, could not be placed socially.” I often suspect that my own London friends regard me similarly during the part of the year that I live there. Stamp wrote, “I first encountered him in the late 60s as the exotic friend of a Cambridge friend; he was then running horse-drawn open carriage tours around Hyde Park and the West End…and seemed, even for me then, a little too starry-eyed about the charm of Victorian England.”
In 1979 Severs bought a Georgian terraced house at number 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields, East London. Built around 1724 during the reign of King George I it was an exquisite but neglected property. The East End in those days was a slum. Stamp called it a “run-down, but mysterious, inner suburb.” Instead of updating the house, Severs lived without electricity or twentieth century technology. He would later recall,
With a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll, I began sleeping in each of the house’s 10 rooms so that I might arouse my intuition in the quest for each room’s soul.
Then, having neared it, I worked inside out from there to create what turned out to be a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbour the light and the spirit of various ages in Time.
Severs created a fictional history for the house. It centered around the fictional Jervis family. They were prosperous Huguenot (French Protestant immigrant) silk weavers whose fortunes waxed and waned during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Severs filled the house with period furniture and artifacts and devised complicated tableaux in each room. He opened the house to paying guests: his audience.
The tour that Severs conducted, beginning in the cellar and ending in the garret, reveals an elusive narrative. The museum’s present-day hosts explain:
The game is that you interrupt a family of Huguenot silk weavers named Jervis who, though they can still sometimes be heard, seem always to be just out of sight. As you journey off into a silent search through the ten rooms, each lit by fire and candlelight, you receive a number of stimulations to your senses.
It is the smell of food that first aligns your imagination with the faces around you in portraits. Then…Mr Jervis’ wig, is it not the very same one that hangs over the back of his chair? His meal is only half eaten; did he abandon it when he heard us arrive?
Visitors begin to do what they might if indeed they had travelled through a frame into a painting: use what they sense to piece together the scene they had missed. Thus (and this was Mr Severs’ intention) what you imagine…is his art.
The experience is enchanting and occasionally quite eerie. It is part theater, part art installation. The motto of the house is Aut Visum Aut Non!: “You either see it or you don’t.” But it is also someone’s home—not Mr Jervis, but Mr Severs—who is simultaneously present and absent.
Before he died in 1999, Severs lamented that he had “come to accept” what he had “refused to accept for so long: that the house is only ephemeral. That no one can put a preservation order on atmosphere.” Stamp concluded: “Certainly not now Dennis Severs has gone to join the Jervises.”
But recent history has unfolded differently than either man imagined. More than a decade later this strange museum/theater/gallery is still open to visitors. Under the curatorship of Severs’s friend David Milne it is a thriving cultural landmark.
The narrative at 18 Folgate Street is not about the reign of Queen Victoria, per se. As one wanders through the rooms, and through time, one spends more of the silent tour in the eighteenth than the nineteenth century. But one emerges—yes, starry-eyed—into the Victorian period. It does not begin there, but ends there. Dennis Severs’s House is one of those wonderful portals, of which London has many, through which a person can enter a lost world.