Archive for London

The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon, London

Posted in Ghosts, History, Legend, London, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Jeremy Bentham was apparently quite a character. As well as being an influential philosopher and jurist, he was probably the first ever Englishman to donate his body to medical science when he passed away in 1832. Even more unusual was his request that his body should then be turned into what is known as an ‘auto-icon’. This is exactly what happened, and Bentham’s auto icon can now be found in the cloisters of University College, London.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

Sitting in a rather smart wooden case, Bentham’s auto-icon may looks like the kind of waxwork figure that you might expect to find nearby at Madame Tussaud’s. In fact this is Bentham’s actual body, with his articulated skeleton hidden below his smart outfit and his real hair sticking out from underneath his wide-brimmed hat.

The head which currently sits on the figure is indeed wax, but Bentham’s real head still exists. It used to be exhibited at the feet of the auto-icon, but curators recently decided that it was just too fragile to leave on display, and it is now safely kept in temperature-controlled storage. I must say I was rather glad to hear it – if you think the figure is kind of spooky, wait until you see the head…!

Jeremy Bentham's head, UCL

Jeremy Bentham’s head, UCL

A number of strange tales have appeared over the years concerning this bizarre figure. One relates that Bentham’s body was put into storage by the College in 1955, with creepy consequences. It seems that Jeremy was not too happy about being hidden away, and his vengeful ghost went on regular rampages throughout the college until he was finally put back in his rightful place in the cloister.

Another story tells that the head was only taken off public exhibition after its theft by rowdy students from Kings College, who ended up using it in a game of football. It is also said that Bentham is still taken into meetings of the College council, and that it is recorded in the minutes that Mr Bentham is ‘present but not voting’.

The latter two are apparently just myths. As for Bentham’s ghost, well I will leave it up to you whether you believe that one.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London


Little Compton Street, London

Posted in History, London with tags , , , , on July 6, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Under a traffic island in on a busy road next to London’s Soho district is perhaps not the most obvious place to look for magic. But strange things can be found in the most unexpected places.

A traffic island on London's Charing Cross Road

A traffic island on London’s Charing Cross Road

Back in Victorian times, Little Compton Street was a bustling lane which joined Old and New Compton Streets. In 1896, however, the area was largely demolished to make way for Charing Cross Road, and the street level was raised. If you look carefully, however, you can find an intriguing remnant of Old London right beneath your feet. Below the unassuming grate in the middle of Charing Cross Road can be seen a wall still bearing not one, but two street signs for the now-buried Little Compton Street.

The underground street signs for Little Compton Street

The underground street signs for Little Compton Street

Not quite a secret street perhaps, but this is still a rather magical remnant of London’s fascinating past, and one which most people pass over without ever even knowing it’s there.

Dennis Severs’ House

Posted in London with tags , , on July 20, 2012 by mysearchformagic

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.