Dennis Severs’ House

Spitalfields has been one of the most cosmopolitan areas of London for over two centuries. It has suffered ups and downs over the years, the elegant Georgian houses degenerating into Victorian slums, only to be gentrified in recent times; but despite the creeping encroachment of the City which surrounds it, Spitalfields still retains pockets of magic.

In 1979 Dennis Severs spotted the potential of a  run-down George I terraced house in Folgate Street which still possessed much of its 18th Century charm. He then set about bringing the place back to life, not with the pedantic precision of a conservator, but with the theatrical eye of a born showman.

The Kitchen
Photo by Roelof Bakker

“With a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll, I began sleeping in each of the house’s 10 rooms so that I might arouse my intuition in the quest for each room’s soul.”

Severs passed away in 1999, but the incredible house that he created still exists, cared for by a band of devotees and friends who keep his unique vision alive.

The facade of 18 Folgate Street, with its fretwork window decorations and the gas light above its Regency door case, suggests that there is something different about this house. Once inside, the ‘spell’ begins to unfold, and as you wander from room to room, up the narrow creaky staircase to the bedrooms or down into the cosy warmth of the kitchen or the mildewy cellar next door, you find yourself on a trip back in time. Dennis Severs’ House is a Hogarthian genre scene brought to life.

The Dining Room
Photo by Roelof Bakker

The house is packed with the ephemera of everyday life in Georgian England. The tables are set for dinner, half-drunk glasses of wine next to crumb-laden plates, clothes are laid out on the bed awaiting their owner, a black cat saunters around with little interest in the visitors who creep quietly through its rooms. Severs himself lived in the house, surrounded by all of this stuff, without central heating, electricity or any such modern luxuries. He often acted as guide, although his habit of showing the door to visitors who broke his ‘no talking, no questions’ rule earned him a rather scary reputation. “You either see it or you don’t” was his mantra, and those who didn’t share his magical vision were given short shrift. Nowadays the custodians of the house are not quite so fearsome. “Silent Night” is the best time to go; visitors are requested not to talk, and the rooms are illuminated by flickering candles and amber firelight. At Christmas the house is decorated with extravagant displays of candied fruit and paper chains, the atmosphere sharpened with the rich smell of spices and mulled wine.

The Master Bedroom
Photo by Roelof Bakker

I’ve introduced a few people to Dennis Severs’ House, and I’ve yet to find anyone who isn’t enchanted by it. This is not ‘heritage’, it’s certainly not a museum, and many of the items in there are not ‘genuine’ or even historically accurate. Instead what you will find is a wonderful piece of theatre, bringing the past to life in a way that is never tacky or kitsch. With its candle-lit interiors filled with the fug of port fumes and wood smoke, the whisper and giggle of invisible residents drifting through from the half-shut doors of adjoining rooms, 18 Folegate Street looks, smells, sounds and feels like a Georgian home in a way that most historic houses never do. Severs created his own narrative for the building around the fictional Jervis family, whose faces stare down from gilt-framed portraits. Whether loitering the in opulent drawing room or shivering in the draughty garret, for the half an hour or so you spend in Dennis Severs’ House, you’ll almost believe you too are part of its magical story.

10 Responses to “Dennis Severs’ House”

  1. A marvelous home!

    I’ve been to places like this, where each room is a theater, a microcosm of a time and place that is not my own. Speech is not necessary, only the thoughts that are swimming through your imagination.

    Indeed, the gown in the final picture looks a bit earlier than Georgian, but I do seriously covet it.

    • Yes the silence is one of the most important factors for me – there’s nothing more likely to eradicate magic that chatter, mobile phones ringing, people taking flash photos left right and centre. This place is all about enjoying the all-consuming experience. Amazing!

  2. I adored Denis Severs’ House. It really does feel magical. I went home picturing all kinds of London life after being there. I really want to do John Soanes’ house next…

  3. This is such a hidden gem. I can’t believe I haven’t been to Dennis Severs’ house. I must go! There’s another house in Spitalfields that’s a shrine to the Huguenot silk weavers and subsequent European immigrants who settled in the east end:
    Looks worth a visit! Jx

  4. Liked your photos of Dennis Severs’ house in London and have posted them in the online magazine London Life which I curate … posted with photographer’s name and link to your blog ..hope that’s okay come and say hello and Happy Christmas!

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