The liberty and individualism of the Enlightenment age, the celebration of nature and beauty throughout the Romantic era, and the focus on industry and morality within the Victorian period. Now you have the opportunity to visualise how these period characteristics manifested themselves within a domestic household. Just a short stroll from Liverpool Street Station, welcome to Dennis Severs House….
A bit of context goes a long way……
I like to believe that Dennis Severs, the late proprietor of 18 Folgate Street and who died in 1999, was a cultural chemist. An alchemist if you will. A passionate enthusiast of recreating the past, by infusing it into our present. It required a grand vision, backed up by sustained dedication and investment. Although his legacy is now immortalized in bricks & mortar, this historical narrative goes well beyond the house’s namesake.
Being an artist, Severs clearly mastered the process of laying down his imagination on canvas. The canvas in question is 18 Folgate Street, and his creative topic was the Enlightenment, Romantic, and Victorian eras. Rather than collecting antiques and presenting them as a rather sedate gallery, Dennis Severs decided to create a living portrait. He has assembled individual rooms to reflect the periods throughout these times and filled them with historical artefacts.
Commonly referred to as a ‘still life drama’, each room presents itself as a moment in time. The moments manifest themselves in the lives of its domestic inhabitants, going about their daily events as if they have just exited each room. This is cleverly achieved by an intense focus on many atmospheric elements, thus ensuring a full sensory experience.
Dennis Severs may be the custodian of this legacy, but the walk-through journey of this ten-bedroom house is not so much about the man, but his fervent desire to provide a full-body teleportation into 18th & 19th century London. Step through the doors, and prepare for your immersion.
What to expect……
Still in the 21st century, we arrived at the inauspicious entrance and were greeted by a rapturous fellow, sporting an impressive beard and an iPad. After checking our particulars, a solid affirmative nod of the head signalled acceptance. He recounted the rules of the house with much aplomb: no photography, no touching, and no talking (suddenly the title of a Silent Tour dawned on me). We were asked to make our way from room-to-room, from bottom-to-top. After enduring a few seconds of silence, I realised we were being asked to silently confirm our understanding of these rules, and duly obliged by a reciprocal nod of the head. A beaming smile and this charming fellow opened the door to allow our passage through time.
Upon crossing the threshold, you are greeted with a wall of silence which is thoroughly inviting. Entering the first room, which resembled a small drawing room, I was immediately struck by the attention to detail. A duo of teacup & saucers were placed serenely on a table, both of which still have half-drunk tea in them. Voluminous drapes adorned the windows, and beautiful motifs encircle the room. Each item fulfils a purpose and is meticulously located with forensic precision. Casting your eyes around, the emphasis is on realism and not showmanship.
As I began to stroll through the rooms, it became obvious what the purpose of silence is (or at least my perception of the need). Much like shutting your eyes heightens your remaining four senses, eliminating your verbal communication allows your brain to engage in other ways. It would be easy to miss the ticking of the grandfather clock, or the subtle background noises of crockery and creaking staircases. Suddenly I had a rather unnerving feeling that I was in the middle of some ghost story by Henry James!
Each room is filled with a sumptuous array of Neo-Classical vintage artefacts, lit by understated candlelight. A small prayer book, ravaged by time, still lies open on a desk; no doubt where the master was taking solace. Seashells lying on a dressing table, filled with make-up, where one of the ladies of the house was preparing for the day ahead. A buffet of freshly dusted Turkish Delight, idly awaiting someone to feast upon them. A grand four-poster bed stands proud, with fresh indentations of a body that has just risen for the day, casually casting aside the bedsheets. Used music sheets laying on a footstool, no doubt where the young master hurriedly exited for dinner.
Much is left to the imagination, but that I feel is the point. Although the snapshot in time represents but a single day, you are left to decide the individual circumstances. Each room creates a unique atmosphere, with its own aroma, and its own temperature. My favourite moment was entering a room where the master of the house appeared to host his friends. William Hogarth’s ‘A Midnight Modern Conversation’ (opposite) is pinned to the wall; a perfect foil for the half-drunk wine glasses and crumbs from a late supper, as the men debated into the night. Background conversation and the clanking of glasses; you can almost sense the comradery.
Dennis Severs House is an orgy for the senses. It is a reminder of just how powerful experiences can be once all of our senses are fully engaged. This is manipulated through body-to-room orientation, which plays a compelling part on how the incoming information is interpreted. What is further remarkable, is how a transition of mood is achieved throughout the various rooms. From the opulence of a late-afternoon Victorian luncheon to the sinister and foreboding illustration of poverty of 1797 (complete with cobwebs and damp!). It’s an impressive achievement.
Without a doubt, this is a unique experience. Rather than the show-and-receive museum format, this is much more immersive. Only one comical moment swiftly brought me back into the century we really exist in: as I was scrutinizing a discarded quill and writing papers, imagining the master pouring over his notes by candlelight, I was suddenly startled by the reverse beeping of a garbage truck outside. No doubt the 20th century equivalent of rambunctious drunks on their way home!
The essentials: prices and standards……
Dennis Severs House can be found just five minute’s walk from Liverpool Street Station just as you head towards Shoreditch. The tour can be taken at your own pace, but 30-45 minutes seems a reasonable time to allow. The house is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 5-9pm. Tickets are a very reasonable £15 each.
A note on dress code: there are no restrictions but be mindful in the summer. I made the catastrophic error of visiting after work, decked out in trousers, waistcoat and blazer. There is no air conditioning in the house, so unless you enjoy your core temperature competing with molten lava, then loose clothing is highly advised.
Finally, I would like to make an observation of the house staff and their flexibility. We had to re-arrange our visit four times, once within twenty-four hours. Each time they accommodated us without question or frustration and were happy to facilitate our requests. What an utter joy.