The time capsule in Spitalfields: Inside Dennis Severs’ House

Dennis Severs House - exterior

“Like a time capsule”

This is how Dennis Severs described the grade-II listed Georgian house in Spitalfields that he refurbished to tell the story of a fictional Huguenot family of silk weavers. Severs, an American artist, bought the dilapidated, four-storey terrace property in 1979, not long after Gilbert & George moved into the area – and immediately began refurbishing its ten rooms.

“Every object in the house should be seen as part of an arrangement”

In other words, each of the eclectic mix of items you encounter tells its own story, and that of the house’s inhabitants, the Jervis family. Optics are important inside 18 Folgate Street – but so, too, are smell and hearing. As you move around the house each of your senses is assailed by varying sights, sounds and odours – some easily discernible, others less so.

Really, you need to experience Dennis Severs’ House yourself to appreciate his legacy. Rather than describe the rooms in detail, I’m going to set the scene by talking about the first room that I visited – and the impact it had upon me.

“As though you’ve travelled through a frame into a painting”

Situated in the base of the building, the kitchen is clearly the heart of the home. Immediately, I noticed how dark it was – outside, London was enjoying glorious sunshine, but no electricity meant that the only light that would have been available to the Jervis family was provided by candle – and the flickering of flames in the range.

Breathing in the scent of herbs, food and the coal fire, my eyes were drawn to items scattered across the kitchen table: a loaf of bread with a bread knife thrown down next to it and bowls of beans waiting to be trimmed. It was Dennis Severs’ intention that each room appear as though it has just been vacated in a hurry and that you should feel the family’s presence all around you – and that was certainly the case in here, from the kettle boiling away to the sink full of potatoes needing peeling, to the half empty cup of tea.

Dennis Severs House - kitchen

“You are still looking at things, instead of what things are doing”

Every inch of space is in use, be that the walls adorned with saucepans and garlic bulbs or the dresser stocked with colourful crockery china – and that turned out to be the case throughout the house. Linking these “things” together is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, although in this instance you have no prescribed picture to follow; your imagination needs to do the work. I suspect that everyone’s interpretation of 18 Folgate House is slightly different – and that is part of the fun.

I must also give a special mention to the first floor drawing room. As you would expect, it provided a complete contrast from the kitchen with its lovely brocaded armchairs, heavy damask drapes, gilt mirrors and silver tea set. It’s tranquil and perfumed and provides a fascinating insight into the habits favoured by women of that period, represented in the houses of playing cards, towering pile of Turkish Delight and the sewing basket filled with gem-coloured reels of cotton.

Dennis Severs House - drawing room

“You either see it or you don’t”

Thus concluded Dennis Severs of his labour of love – and I saw plenty today which intrigued and educated me. Whether I made all the right connections, only Mr Severs himself can know.

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