Unlike a museum or an art gallery, this intimate abode allows visitors to immerse themselves in their surroundings and really get a feel for the past. Dennis Severs, an American artist and the house’s creator, wanted people to feel like they had tumbled straight into a painting of each room, letting their imaginations run wild and crafting an illusion of life in the house as if its owners have just left each room. Severs described the concept as a ‘still-life drama’, hoping that observers would feel lost in another place and time. Upon arrival, visitors are given a short introduction and then left to their own devices to explore the household in complete silence. Tours can also be taken by candlelight, adding to the atmospheric nature of the place.
Severs’ intention was that visitors needed to completely tune into their senses in order to participate in his work of art. The creaking wooden floorboards and the dimly lit corridors immediately alert the senses to a dwelling that clearly has a story to tell. The exploration starts downstairs in the darkened cellar, a chilly space with a crater containing fragments of St Mary’s Spital, AD 1197, hence the name Spitalfields. One’s natural instinct is to move from the cellar into the kitchen, beckoned in by the warmth of the flickering fire and the smells of a sumptuous feast laid out on the table. Everything from the stacks of pots and pans in the sink to the smell of wood smoke coming from the grate gives the impression that this is a working kitchen, abandoned momentarily by the kitchen maids.
The hidden lives of the family continues to be revealed upon entering the eating parlor, where Mr Jervis’s half-eaten meal appears to have been abandoned just as you entered the room, alongside his wig, perched neatly upon the chair. As you gaze around the room and notice its eclectic mix of family paraphernalia, you can hear the sound of a horse and cart clip-clopping past the window (or was that just in your mind?). As you move up the narrow staircase and through the handsome halls, your senses are alerted to every sound and smell of how life once was in the house. Everything from the unmade beds to a quill left upon an unfinished letter has been considered in meticulous detail to make the observer feel as if they really have gone back in time, a credit to the house’s creator.
Dennis Severs’ House, along with its enchanting ambiance, is a fascinating place to while away an hour in this area of London, especially when looking for something to do that is off the beaten track. The home is perfect for those who have an interest in the East End’s heritage. Experience a spellbinding activity that will enrapture your senses, or just take a nosy around the Jervis family’s home; after all, the house’s motto is, ‘You either see it or you don’t’.
Dennis Severs’ House, 18 Folgate Street, London, E1 6BX, +44 0207 247 40130