Severs was an American eccentric who came to England in the 1960's, searching
for what he called 'English light.' As a young man he drove a horse and
carriage round Mayfair, re-creating the past for his own pleasure, and
that of the visitors who queued to time-travel in Dennis's special style.
He was a fantasist and a dreamer, slotting history inside imagination,
understanding that the only way to know anything, is to experience it
for yourself. This was not tour-guide London, this was invented London,
where experience was whatever you could be persuaded to believe. In the
1970's Dennis bought a ten-room Georgian house in Spitalfields, 18 Folgate
Street. The fruit and vegetable market was still operating. Days began
at four in the morning, as giant lorries backed into refrigerated bays,
to unload palettes of gassed oranges and lemons the size of hand-grenades.
In those days, tramps lived around eternally burning fires stacked with
crates. Like them, Dennis ate for free, scavenging market leavings, competing
with the rats. Spitalfields had few residents; the squares and terraces
were marked for demolition, the place was a slum. Carrying a bedroll,
a candle and a chamber pot, Dennis slept in each of the ten rooms in his
house, feeling the atmosphere, determined to bring the house back to life.
He did this, not by painstaking restoration or a sense of curatorship,
but by creating an imaginary family - the Jervises - to live in the house
with him and be shown to visitors. Not that you ever did see them, of
course, they had just left the room as you entered. But they were there
- their spilled wine, their cooking smells, their clothes, creaks on the
floorboards as they walked overhead, a baby crying, a servant sweeping.
To visit the house was an extraordinary theatrical event. Dennis had speakers
hidden everywhere to provide the sounds, but the fascination was the man
himself. He worked 'the space between', as he called it - the time-gap,
the reality-gap. He had no interest in the solidity of facts; he wanted
the shifts of imagination that allow us to move dimensionally - not just
straight ahead. The house was not a time-warp or a time-tunnel, it was
its own time, unregulated by clocks. To come in from the frantic busyness
of the City was a kind of kidnap, except that here the blindfold came
motto was 'You either see it or you don't.' His book, The Tale of a House
in Spitalfields, completed just before he died, is a diary of the house
and a guided tour, filled up with his particular philosophy and crackpot
interests. Fashions come and go, but there are permanencies of the spirit
that join humanity through time - and it was such permanencies, fragile,
vulnerable, often forgotten, that Dennis sought to communicate.
I do not mean to be rude; Dennis preferred cracked pots to museum pieces
- he had a fear of the wrong kind of education. For him, excitement lay
in what was not quite whole, what was likely to be undervalued by others.
Spitalfields itself used to be just such an excitement - overlooked, misunderstood,
layered with treasures whether Roman or Huguenot. This is not your usual
historical house. You won't find a tour guide, or placards telling you
what all the objects in the house are. No one will stop and answer your
questions about how people lived, or give you a history lesson. No, this
is a real house of the period, confirmed by the acrid smelling, yellow
fluid in the chamber pot!
The feeling of being in another century was what mattered to him, not
historical accuracy, and any visitor who described the house as a museum
would be ejected onto the street with the words 'if you want to learn,
read a bloody book!' ringing in their ears. Severs was renowned for ejecting
visitors that did not seriously appreciate his recreations, or refusing
entry to anyone who dared to be late for one of his tours (although this
was more practical than artistic temperament as he had to start and synchronise
all of his tape recorders so that the 'voices' left the rooms just as
His lighting was by oil lamp, and he cleaned using lavender which was
around all the skirting boards, so that, he told me, even the smells were
correct. His tape recorders could have been battery-run, but he reluctantly
revealed a telephone on one occasion that I needed it, and one resented
electricity socket just off his kitchen. But for the main part my many
extension cables went through his next-door neighbour's letter-box to
help perpetuate the myth in case that accompanying scribe got wind of
it! He sadly died of AIDS in December 1999.