“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.
“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.
“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.
My mom and I visited Dennis Severs house a couple of weeks ago when we were visiting London for the first time. We had never heard of it before, but our cab driver at the airport highly recommended it to us – and it was certainly an experience to remember! It was lovely stumbling across your blog post and reading about your time there – as well as reliving ours a bit too 🙂 My favorite part was the smell of the rose water, and the black cat hanging out in the master bedroom!
I was so pleased to see your message: I don’t know anyone else who has been to Dennis Severs’ House and it was lovely reading your thoughts on it. I agree that the different scents were very powerful – as for the black cat, I have to say that on the day I was there he didn’t seem awfully keen on visitors and unnerved me somewhat! I hope you enjoyed the rest of your time in London: where else did you go?
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Thank you so much for your lovely note! It was truly a unique experience, we had no idea what to expect of our visit, but it was certainly one of the highlights. I’m feeling so nostalgic now just thinking about it! We had an amazing time – we went to the Tate Modern, the V&A Museum, Covent Garden, and Hampton Court – to name just a few things! And of course, we ate delicious pub fare, Indian food, and went to afternoon tea 🙂 I can’t wait to go back – not nearly enough time to fit everything in!
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Sounds as though you managed to pack a lot in! Hampton Court is one of my favourite places in the UK – I learn something new every time I go there. You should put some of your thoughts into a blog post – I’d love to read them.
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We really did!! My mom has mobility issues and it’s tough for her to get around, so I was super proud and impressed with her stamina, too, to see as much as we did. And thank you so much, that is absolutely the plan! I have been backlogged with the blogging lately as I’m also trying to build my photography website – never enough time in the day! – but am absolutely going to write about our trip to London…it was too wonderful not to share! ❤