Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Things to See: Dennis Severs' House

Master Bedroom at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields. 

A few days ago, I rediscovered 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields. That is to say, I've read about this house before, and it's one of those infuriating memories that lingered just out of reach, refusing to step forward and say, "hello, remember me?!" So, imagine the little light bulb that flickered and blinked on when I saw 18 Folgate Street on the television a few days ago.

And now, the place is well and truly stuck at the forefront of my brain, and I suspect it will remain there until I manage to visit. To explain the phenomenon that is 18 Folgate Street is a feat in itself, but I'll do my best!

Born in California, but fascinated by England from an early age, Dennis Severs bought a wreck of a Georgian house in Spitalfields, London in 1979 and set about making his mark upon it. This would be the best way of describing his achievement. A restoration in the more established, heritage sense of the word just doesn't seem to cover it.

In Severs' own words,

"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."

By using the fictional Jervis family as a starting point, he elaborately wove their story into the fabric of the house. 18 Folgate Street is not a museum, neither is it a heritage property in the style of the National Trust or English Heritage. In flickering candlelight, visitors are left with the impression that various members of the Jervis family have just flitted from the room. There are unmade beds, discarded wigs, open books and half-eaten meals. Surfaces groan with Severs' carefully placed items, the floors are covered in oriental rugs and the windows dressed with sumptuous velvet. Visitors to the house are asked to respect the space in silence, thought and contemplation.

Severs' vision was very clear: he wanted to evoke more than atmosphere. He wanted to provoke deep emotion and feeling; to create a discourse between the past and present in order that we might somehow make sense of life itself. Severs' own description for his creation was to call it "still life drama." The house is by no means a truly accurate reflection of eighteenth century living, but I can feel the warmth of it even from the pictures. More than anything, 18 Folgate Street is an unfolding story told through objects which envelope the senses. Whatever your view about Severs' unusual approach, it is nothing if not extraordinary.

When he died in 1999, the house was bought by the Spitalfields Trust, and continues to be open for public visits, although subject to booking. I myself fancy the "Silent Night" visit! Find out more here.

I leave the final word to Dennis Severs,

"You either see it, or you don't."


  1. So it's sort of like walking into Tracey Emin's 18th Century bedroom, then? :D

  2. Exactly, only without the dirty underwear! (And Tracey Emin, which can only be a good thing...) :P