At Dennis Severs House

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Dennis Severs at his desk; photo: Dennis Severs’ House

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.

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Remembering Sir John Betjeman

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Sir John Betjeman left a towering legacy as a poet and preservationist. He wrote about the touchstones of British life, both grand and homely. As an Anglican Christian, who credited his conversion in part to Arthur Machen’s novel The Secret Glory, he was particularly concerned with English cathedrals and parish churches. W.H. Auden described him as a man who was “at home with the provincial gaslit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium.” Betjeman defended the branch line railways that fell to Beeching’s Axe in the 1960s. He was an advocate for Victorian architecture, which was deeply unpopular during most of the twentieth century. It is largely thanks to his campaigning that the magnificent St Pancras Station and Midland Grand Hotel were saved from demolition in the 1960s.

My favorite account of Betjeman comes from the Australian actor Barry Humphries. In The Telegraph, he writes:

John described himself not as a poet but as a ‘senior journalist’, and in his book-cluttered sitting-room, lined with green William Morris wallpaper and hung with pictures by Conder, Laura Knight and Max Beerbohm, he dispensed generous late-morning drinks, usually ‘bubbly’ in pewter tankards, to friends such as Osbert Lancaster, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and, not seldom, an Anglican priest or two.

It was a heady company into which I, a callow colonial, had been agreeably plunged. After a few drinks, and in an exalted mood, we would all repair to Coleman’s chophouse, in Aldersgate Street, where the atmosphere and appointments were immutably pre-war, and remained so until the enlightened mid-1960s, when the entire eastern side of that old thoroughfare was razed and replaced by council houses in the Brutalist style, now woefully shabby.

At Coleman’s we would all tuck into roast beef and Brussels sprouts, and drink more champagne. John always insisted on paying, which was just as well. His Collected Poems was a bestseller, and his masterpiece, the poetic autobiography Summoned by Bells, was a huge popular success, in spite of a few sniffy and envious reviews.

John was fond of exclaiming, with great merriment and that high, exultant cackle that his friends remember with such heart-rending affection, ‘Thanks to the telly, I’m as rich as Croesus!’ The poacher’s pockets in his jacket bulged with books and round canisters of Player’s cigarettes, which he liked to smoke because the ‘art work’ on the tins hadn’t changed in 30 or more years.

Sir John Betjeman’s former home at 43 Cloth Fair, overlooking Great Saint Bart’s, is owned by the Landmark Trust, which rents it out to holidaymakers.

Modernity Encroaches on Dr Johnson’s House

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In London it is not hard to find surreal juxtapositions of the old and new. One of the most striking, I think, is the view from the upstairs window in Dr Johnson’s House.

17 Gough Square can be found in the warren of alleyways between Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and Fetter Lane. It is the only surviving London residence of the lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). The perfectly restored eighteenth-century building has been open to the public as a museum since 1914.

Inside one can easily imagine oneself in the reign of King George II—until one looks out of the north windows. A massive glass and steel block of barristers’ offices at 5 New St Square fills the view. There is a moment of dislocation in time. One feels like a Georgian suddenly confronted with a temple to an alien god outside of his bedroom.

Rebuild Penn Station

“One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” That was the judgement of Yale historian Vincent Scully on Penn Station in New York after it was buried under Madison Square Garden.

The demolition of the original McKim, Mead & White-designed station in 1963 was an act of architectural philistinism unmatched in American history. It is often said to have galvanized the historic preservation movement but that movement has been on the defensive ever since. Year by year the immense stock of beautiful architecture in New York is whittled away at, and the number of ugly ill-considered developments increase.

It would be nice to reclaim some lost territory in the name of beauty and culture. Where better to start than Penn Station itself?

The National Civic Art Society is campaigning to reconstruct the original 1910 edifice. Visit the NCAS’s Rebuild Penn Station website for more information on the project and how to support it.

Pictured below, Pennsylvania Station as it was…

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…versus Madison Square Garden, erected in its place…

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…with “new” Penn Station in the basement…

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renderings of the NCAS plan

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…and a hopeful outlook for 2024…

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Saint-Petersburg As It Might Have Been

In 2014 a design by the Russian classical architect Maxim Atayants was selected for a new judicial quarter in Saint-Petersburg. The centerpiece of the project would be the home of the country’s supreme court which is being moved from Moscow.

Atayants submitted an austere Roman design nicely embellished with Beaux-Arts decoration. It would include a number of government buildings, a dance theater, and a pedestrian embankment along the River Neva. This would have been a splendid reaffirmation of traditional architecture in one of Europe’s most important cities. Unfortunately it was not to be.

For reasons that are altogether unclear approval of Atayants’s design was revoked in 2017, as reported by Peter Kellow. A modernist design was selected to replace it. Renderings by Atayants can be found on the internet; many appear below.

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Under London Bridge

I dined with my Livery company this week in London. The Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass occupies a hall on the Southwark side of London Bridge. It stands, in fact, on the site of an earlier bridge.

There have been three crossings at this location since the thirteenth century. “Old” London Bridge was built in 1209 during the reign of King Henry II. Like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence it was covered with buildings and shops. The Chapel of St Thomas on the Bridge marked the starting point of the popular pilgrimage route to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

By the eighteenth century “Old” London Bridge was in a decrepit state, hence the nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is falling down.” In 1824 work began on “New” London Bridge. It was designed by the Scottish civil engineer Sir John Rennie, who had previously designed Waterloo Bridge and the East India Docks.

“New” London Bridge opened in 1831 during the reign of King William IV. It served the City throughout the Victorian period and the first half of the twentieth century. But the introduction of automotive traffic greatly reduced its lifespan. By the 1920s the foundations had begun to sink. “New” London Bridge was replaced in 1967. Bizarrely, it was sold to an American oil magnate, dismantled stone by stone, and transported to Arizona.

The southern foundation of Sir John Rennie’s London Bridge remains in situ and intact beneath Glazier’s Hall. A recent renovation opened it up for use. So we had our cocktail reception there, in an atmospheric space containing the late-Georgian brick arches and York stone floor of a lost London Bridge.

Endings and Beginnings at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London closed in June of 2017 after 450 years in business. For the past 250 years the foundry has occupied premises at 32–34 Whitechapel Road. Big Ben was cast there. So was the Liberty Bell. Parts of the Grade II* listed building date back to 1670 when a coaching inn called The Artichoke stood at the site.

Now developers Raycliff intend to build a 100-room hotel on the property, absorbing the protected portions into a larger modernist complex. This would be a shame.

But the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust, an independent charity founded by The Prince of Wales, wants to buy the factory back. The Trust would run the site as a high-tech business, producing bells as it always has. According to the proposal:

In order to thrive as a working, forward-looking foundry, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry will diversify and update its bell casting techniques and materials while working to integrate the latest technology in 3D recording and output methods, acoustic recording and multispectral photography…

The Foundry will celebrate and share its prestigious history and the story of bell-making through educational exhibits and the creation of a nationwide archive of bells and their sounds. Apprenticeships and training programmes, together with school outreach activities, will be at the core of the new WBF.

Support the Trust and its work here.

Lost Streets of New York

In 2013 city planners widened the sidewalks at Astor Place to create a pedestrian plaza. As a consequence they partially demolished two of the oldest streets in Manhattan.

Plaques on the pavement are all that remain of the western terminus of Stuyvesant Street and the eastern terminus of Astor Place. There was an uproar over the plan at the time (I remember writing letters) due to the antiquity of these roads.

Stuyvesant Street originally ran through the farm of Peter Stuyvesant, the last director-general of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. Astor Place was built in the nineteenth century but follows the course of an Indian trail that also dates to the seventeenth century.

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Germany Around 1900

I have been leafing through Taschen’s gorgeous photographic atlas, Germany Around 1900. The volume catalogues the architectural heritage of the Kaiserreich in a series of enchanting photochrom prints. Looking through them one is struck with wonder (that such a beautiful world existed) and heartache (that it was destroyed).

Of course, many of the great civic buildings depicted in the book are still standing. Below are a selection of surviving landmarks as they appeared at the turn of the last century: Wernigerode Town Hall; the inner courtyard of Wartburg Castle, where Martin Luther translated the Bible; Neuschwanstein Castle (King Ludwig’s esoteric architectural homage to Wagner); Butchers’ Guild Hall in Hildesheim; and the Evangelical Cathedral in Berlin.

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An X-Ray on the Landscape

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The heatwave throughout Britain this summer has brought a number of lost features of the landscape temporarily into view again. Last month the BBC reported on the reappearance of the Victorian formal garden at Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire. The “ghost garden” was designed in the 1850s by Sir Charles Barry (who also designed the Houses of Parliament and Highclere Castle). It was lost during World War II.

Sarah Lascow at Atlas Obscura explains the phenomenon:

Cropmarks make sense when you think about them. Years ago, the people who settled in these places dug furrows and moats to help protect their lands, built foundations into the earth, and constructed walls. Those features are now invisible on the surface of the land, but their remnants still lurk beneath. Where walls once stood, the soil might be shallower; a filled-in ditch can mean a deep pocket of rich soil.

Most years, these variations in the ground don’t make much of a difference to plants, especially if they’re hardy and shallow-rooted. But when resources are scarce, a filled-in ditch can be a source of much-needed water, allowing the lucky plants above to grow green and strong while their neighbors wilt. Conversely, plants growing above old walls might struggle while their neighbors thrive.

Other reappearances include “Roman forts, Iron Age farms and Medieval castles” in Wales. Clumber House, one of the great English country houses lost in the twentieth century, resurfaced in Clumber Park. The house was built in the 1760s and torn down in 1938. Rachael Hall, an archaeologist for National Trust Midlands, tells iNews: “The parch marks at Clumber House have been fantastic. You can see the entire mansion laid out in front of you, so you know which room you’re in. And you can walk down the corridors into the grand hall, or the yellow drawing room, or the kitchen or the dining room and clearly know where you are.”