Dennis Severs
November 16, 1948 -
December 27, 1999

At home with Wellington the cat at 18 Folgate Street, Spittlefields

 

 

Dennis 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 off.

 

Dennis's 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 you entered.

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.