At 18 Folgate Street stands the house of the late Dennis Severs (1948-1999). Severs came to the London in the late 1970s from California, where he had grown up a keen Anglophile, fostering a love of old British black-and-white films from another era. Severs bought the house at 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields and then set about spending the next twenty years creating a marvellous eighteenth-century Georgian home, including its imagined residents, the Gervais or Jervis family of Huguenot weavers.
A visit to Dennis Severs’ House is unlike going to any other historic house or museum. In fact, you had better not call it a museum, as Severs was notorious for having ejected a visitor for this very reason! The experience at Dennis Severs’ House is conducted in complete silence, from the moment when the house manager ushers you in from the street. The effect is immediately spellbinding, as you work your way through the ten rooms of the house which trace the life of the Huguenot family from the start of the 1700s up until the end of the eighteenth century. The rooms reflect each epoch that the family lived through, from their successful period during the Regency silk trade boom (manifested by the highly-decorated ornate drawing room) and through to the Dickensian garret room, when the silk trade was failing and merchants’ houses had become slums full of residents.
Severs, who travelled around London in a horse drawn carriage and lived off vegetable produce from the local markets – truly living an eighteenth century life – described the opus he created at the house as “still life drama”. The visitor indeed feels as if they are participating in a multi-sensory piece of theatre. The house is warmed by fires which crackle invitingly, and it has been lit by candlelight since Severs moved in, ensuring that you must peer at objects to get a better look. Every aspect of the house was created in the ‘Marie Celeste’ style, so that it always seems as if the occupants of the house have just left the room as you have entered. There are little reminder notes spread around the house to make sure that you don’t disturb them and to ensure you’ve got the point! The house motto is Aut Visum Aut Non! meaning, you either see it or you don't.
The lived-in effect of the house is emphasised by an attack on all of the senses. There are the attractive scents of flowers and food cooking, sounds of people banging about in the upstairs rooms or the kettle hissing on the hob, birds tweeting by a window on the staircase and even the less inviting smells of old washing and a full chamber pot.
In each room the mood is set by the objects and furniture, stuffed in so the spaces are almost full to bursting. This is wonderful as there really is so much to take in, and great attention is paid to detail – such as directions for altering an outfit in the lady’s bedroom, or notes and leaflets on current affairs pinned up just as we might do in our own houses now. Some objects are original, but many Severs made himself. He declared in his original brochure text that “my canvas is your imagination,” and the experience of visiting the house can absolutely be likened to walking around an Old Master painting, with all of its riches displayed.
Artist David Hockney once described Dennis Severs’ house as one of the world's greatest works of opera, notes the house brochure. I absolutely agree, and this dramatic performance piece is an opera which I am keen to see, hear, smell and experience many times over.