Dennis Severs’ House is not a museum. The custodians of this 18th century time capsule are most anxious to point out this fact. It is also not a collection of antiques or a heritage house. So what is it then?
Everyone has time to ponder this as the queue outside 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields doesn’t move for quite a while. The outside of the house doesn’t give much away either. It’s part of a four-storey brick block and has red shutters. A gas lamp with a flame burning hangs above the door and over the entrance way is a face of an old bearded man.
I’m hoping the promised ‘short introduction’ will shed some light on what it’s all about. Eventually, the queue starts moving and one by one people are ushered into the house. Others that have finished their visit come out looking surprised, bemused or completely blank. Not knowing what’s inside seems to add to the tension that’s building – in my mind anyway.
Finally I’m at the front and we’re given the ‘short introduction’ by a small man in a green-checked shirt and an empathetic face. He says something like “This is not a museum it’s an experience, as you go round the rooms tune in and ‘feel’ the presence of the family, don’t touch anything, keep silent and mind your step it’s quite dark. Lastly, relax and enjoy yourself. Please start with the room on the right”.
I’m still none the wiser after this. I was expecting a full-on spiel about the late Dennis Severs, the history of the house and the concept, not to mention the furniture. I was expecting a bit much. He’s right about one thing though, it’s very dark. So dark that it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust. As does standing in a room with other people who are all trying to ‘feel’ the presence of the owners.
This isn’t a seance or anything, it’s part of the concept. The fictional Jervis family, Huguenot silk weavers, have ‘just left’ when you entered which is why the rooms have half-drunk cups of tea, burning candles and unmade beds. Strangely enough, once you get used to the other shuffling visitors and Americans drawling in hushed whispers “I just love what they’ve done with the drapes!” you do tune in to the house somewhat.
Entering a bedroom does feel like you’re prying into someone’s private life, and half-finished letters and combs with hair stuck in them add a certain amount realism to the feeling. Some rooms are not for the faint-hearted however and make me feel glad there are other people around. The top floor bedrooms, for example, are ramshackle, dusty and one of them has a huge four-poster bed with red velvet curtains and gargoyles peeking out from under cobwebs. I wonder if this is where Dennis Severs slept, he’d have nightmares if he did. He lived in the house surrounded by all this 18th century paraphenalia for years, no wonder he started thinking other people lived there too!
Though it’s difficult to ‘feel’ the Jervis’ presence with other people around talking and whispering to each other, I imagine being there on one of the evening tours would definitely be quite creepy, especially as the basement contains some unearthed ruins of the Spitalfields Leper Hospital.
I go for another jaunt around the house, there are 10 rooms but they’re quite small which explains why some people were coming out after only 20 minutes. A visit can take up to 45 minutes apparently. One of the rooms, the Jervis’ bedroom, has an overpowering smell of cloves, and the recorded sounds of people bustling about in adjoining rooms. Another has the sound of horses clopping. Everywhere you go notices tell you to search for clues and not to look at objects but ‘feel’ the whole picture. I’m getting slightly tired of being told what to feel, and a group of American girls touching the vegetables in the kitchen and exclaiming over them unfortunately ends the visit for me.
In my book the hype slightly exceeds the experience, but it’s a place that’s definitely worth visiting. Even if you’re not into ‘sensing’ fictional characters, the house itself is an exceptionally well preserved time capsule of 18th century life, complete with sights, sounds and smells. And if you come away feeling short-changed remember the house’s motto is “you either see it, or you don’t” which acts as a disclaimer so you’ve really got no one to blame but yourself.
For more information visit www.dennissevershouse.co.uk.