Monday, 29 June 2015

Chapter 83: Shadowing Dennis Severs

A menagerie of friends by visage artist Sarah Godard*

Breakfast at Lucy's
Picture the scene. Or maybe best not. Maybe just shut your eyes and skip this first paragraph. There I am, 2pm on Saturday afternoon, sitting at the kitchen table in next to nothing but a slip of silk, tapping away at my laptop, furiously trying to bring together my previous post on Giffords Circus' "Moon Songs". It's been a long time coming and I have a small window before going off to the wedding of dearest friends. We've just had a lazy lunch, and Mr LucyLovesCircus (as he's now known) has just taken the kids to a party, while I am ignoring the clearing up and cracking on, lost in a lunar reverie. The doorbell goes. Shortly followed by a key turning in the door. Crap, it must the be the Estate Agent. I had completely forgotten we had a house viewing today. I have to make a split second decision on what bothers me more - the state of the kitchen or my state of undress. I hear kids voices too and leg it up the stairs just as the door is opening.  Grabbing last night's party frock and slinging it over in seconds, I hover like a ghost. A rather noisy ghost. Instead of rattling chains, clattering with five dirty mugs  looped on my fingers. I manage to sneak back to the kitchen and my laptop, looking with horror at the place. I now see the bags of chips spilling out, a chicken carcass on the side, a riot of dirty plates, a calamity of ketchup, and a pair of gold hot pants flung over the back of a chair for good measure. It's like a Dennis Severs installation brought into the 21st Century. Who is Dennis Severs? Let me explain.

Last Autumn I was taking a Spanish friend, who had been staying with us in South London, to his lodgings in Bishopsgate, as a guest of the CASA Latin American Theatre Festival at Richmix in Dalston. Nel was staying at the Tune Hotel on Folgate Street, to be precise, and once we had settled him in there I registered a rather odd building opposite. Dark and mysterious, it had a lantern flickering in front of the black door, with red painted numbers and rather eerie silhouettes in the window. So I snapped a picture and posted it on Facebook with the question: "Anyone know what's going on here?". Sure enough, my original Circus Space partner in crime Anne, a City of London tour guide (among other things) flagged it as Dennis Severs' house and promised to take me there. We finally got there last Thursday. 

Dennis Severs was an American eccentric who came over to London in the 50s. In love with English heritage, the world of Dickens and so forth, he bought the house, lovingly furnished it over the years with all sorts of antiques he had collected, and lived in it as though from another century. He invented a family of 18th century silk weavers, The Jervis Family, Huguenot refugees, to inhabit the space and transformed the house into their history.  It is not just a recreation of rooms, it is a living museum, with the idea being that each room you walk into has literally just been vacated. You get a sense of the family, as though they are just outside the corner of your eye. Shadows that you can't quite fix on, but you get the impression. Candles are burning, soup is on the fire, half eaten dinner - the life is tangible. The tour is done in silence, no touching of any of the items, and you are invited to drink in the smells, the visual cues and the sounds of street life, clock chimes and the scattering of footsteps. 

Anne, of course, in her inimitable style, had booked us on the champagne tour - a glass awaiting at the end, when speech would be permitted. I don't know which I was looking forward to more, quite frankly. We were joined by another friend, Ange. Our last excursion as a threesome together had been last year for The Alchemic Order's Dorian Gray**, a house that had been transformed to recreate a Wilde evening, and the parallels were striking.  We knocked at the door. It opened and we were greeted by Joel, one of the guides with the most deliciously rich voice of Burtonesque proportions. He took one look at us and invited us to be silent "for as long as you can … [a resigned look] well, at least do try for the first bit". Actually, we did pretty well. A couple of stage whispers here and there, especially when trying to remember a beautiful little motif on one of the samplers 'A woman who has intellect, without the softening of the heart, is … stupid." As no cameras are permitted and we didn't have a pen and paper to hand, we divvied the line into three parts. I failed miserably at remembering my bit (one gin-in-a-tin en route is all it takes) and in the redistribution of parts ended up with simply "stupid" instead. Thanks guys. 

Each room was like a "still-life drama" with guiding notes left by Dennis Severs, directing attention, inviting thoughts. I don't want to say too much, you really do have to experience it blind. The tableau (presque) vivant incarnating a Hogarth picture of carnal overindulgence obviously struck a chord, the integration of a bit of Spitalfields history was fascinating, the kitchen's low ceiling surprising, and the attic, a mock-up of the conditions and house rules that a lodging family like Bob Cratchett's would really have had to suffer, was heart-breaking. If you go in winter, I'm told, you really feel the full force of the harsh conditions, the chill, the draughts, every creak and crack. And it's also worth going in December months as the rest of the house lends itself to festive cheer. 

Afterwards, chatting over our glass of bubbly with a couple of the guides, fountains of information, we learned that a book is coming out about the house in the Autumn by the author of Hugo. I wondered if the legendary immersive theatre company Punchdrunk*** had expressed an interest in the place, as I can imagine them staging their own immersive tour. Of course they have been round several times and been in talks, though I imagine the logistics would be tricky given the dynamics and the legions of crowds trampling through that a PD production would attract. Dennis Severs himself used to give a tour in the old days, and while I'm sure they have their own candidates, I've mentally cast Dorian's Lord Henry Wooten in the role. He'd be the perfect wit! 

Experiences of the house happen at specific times. But be warned. It's an enchanting place. Both guides I spoke to had started out as a visitor and then never left. And they do all the dusting themselves with tender care. 

For more information check out the site at
There is a Dennis Severs' House  page on Facebook and follow on Twitter @18FolgateStreet.

In Autumn there is book by Brian Selznick called "The Marvels" (illustrator and author of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" turned into the film Scorsese hit "Hugo")   featuring the house. Here he is talking about it: 

*Sarah Godard is one of a handful of visage portrait artist, a skill inherited from 18th Century France, and captured our friends at our Moulin Rouge house-party for Mr LucyLovesCircus' 40th a couple of weeks ago.  Check out her website:

**The Alchemic Order will be back with Dorian Gray in Greenwich in the Autumn. Follow on FB page and on Twitter @AlchemicOrder. Please check out Anne's post on a stellar evening: click here: "Passion for All…Dorian Gray and Immersive Theatre"

***Punchdrunk are currently running a ground-breaking show aimed at children aged 6-12 years old, set in The Maritime Museum in Greenwich called "Against Captain's Orders" - click here for more details - see

Finally, please note: round the corner from Folgate Street, British Land are set demolish nearly three quarters of buildings on their site within the Elder St Conservation Area. There is a campaign called "Save Norton Folgate" - find out more about it here: and by following the Spitafield Trusts on twitter @SpitalfieldsT.

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