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From Issue #58 December 18, 2014

You Are Our Television

Dennis Severs’s invented London

By Colleen Hubbard Twitter icon

The house viewed from Folgate Street

In London’s Spitalfields district, a gas lamp above a black door on Folgate Street beats against the red neon glare of a hotel across the street. This area in the East End has gained traction in recent years as a landing spot for baristas, beards, and boutiques built in shipping containers. However, the threads of history link it to a darker past: they were slums so notorious they merited dire Hogarth engravings and finger-wagging moral novels. It’s where Jack the Ripper carried out his murders.

Though the pulse of time moves Spitalfields ever forward, one address, 18 Folgate, plays in the theater of the past. “There’s nothing in glass boxes here,” announces a guide to a group of 10 visitors. “Expect to read very little.”

Visitors enter each room, from the basement to the attic, without a guide to interpret the surroundings. A few notes encourage visitors to linger and observe, taking in each carefully selected detail in this home of a prosperous 18th century silk weaver. Except, of course, this is nothing of the sort.

We enter the candlelit kitchen, where a fire crackles in the hearth and an egg yolk slumps in a well of flour. The acid of a rotting lemon bites through the wooden mantle. This room, and all of the others, looks as if its occupants have just departed. A visitor bumps into the kitchen table, on which is curled a taxidermy cat. The cat’s tail flicks.

“It’s real!” gasps the visitor. “It’s a cat actor!”

18 Folgate Street isn’t a museum. This house is a fantasy: a bold act of historical reinvention, a challenge to the bleached neatness of formal house tours, and an exercise of imagination for both the creator and the visitor. This is the home of an American, Dennis Severs, a Southern California transplant who arrived in London in the late 1960s but didn’t find what he came here to experience. And so he created it.

An American in Spitalfields

A certain type of person isn’t born at home, and must create one. So must it be for the small-town goth or the theater geek in dusty West Texas. And so it was for Dennis Severs, raised in Escondido, California, a suburb of San Diego. Severs rushed home at the end of the school day to flick on the TV and watch English costume dramas, his favorite shows — concoctions where the details seemed deliciously exact. The cloth cover over a vest button. The romantic glow of beeswax candles. It was nothing like his high school or the landscape in Escondido, where his parents owned a gas station.

Severs graduated high school and moved to London in 1967. But the view he found there wasn’t the one he expected. To erect skyscrapers, historic houses were demolished, while the counterculture preached the importance of the natural and the pastoral. His idea of London wasn’t cherished and it was literally disappearing around him. To create the city he wanted to live in, first Severs bought an 1840 landau carriage and hired a footman to drive him around. Both men wore period outfits.

But the carriage wasn’t enough. From his lurching seat, Severs had a view of mod London: ugly high-rises, polyester office costumes, too-bright lights, and last night’s smudged eyeliner. He didn’t want a bubble of history to carry him into contemporary society; he needed a space where he could block out the present completely.

The master bedroom

18 Folgate, the story goes, had been one of the few homes in Spitalfields continuously occupied for 300 years. When Severs bought it, a sick old man lived on the second floor; within weeks of the sale, the old man died, his family collected the body, and Severs moved in.

Severs’s vision for his new house wasn’t a traditional renovation project. Rather, he de-renovated it. Arriving only with a candle, a chamber pot, and a bedroll, Severs first ripped out the plumbing and electrical wiring. He decorated the house with period fabrics and furniture if he could find them, and with look-alikes when he couldn’t. To create a detail of hanging fruit set into the hallway, he bought plastic fruit from a Tesco supermarket, covered the faux fruit in plaster, and glued it to the ceiling.

He lit the rooms with candles, and when he didn’t have a candle available, he quit the night’s activities and went to bed. And in perhaps his greatest act of invention, he concocted people to live with him: the Jervis family, Huguenot silk-weavers who were typical of the people who lived in Spitalfields in the 18th century.

The Jervis family

According to Severs’s story, the Jervis family lived in his house from 1725 to 1919. Each room moves through their history, from the first French Protestant immigrant who showcased his wealth with a gilt baroque interior to a set of lodgers who lived in the unheated attic space, their windows and beds covered in tattered gray fabric. His design for the space juxtaposes the romantic with the quotidian: on one landing, a platter of silvered almonds and glacé fruit glimmer as if in a dream, with a note warning the youngest Jervis daughter not to touch. Yet beside a bed on that same floor you’ll find a chamber pot — used.

A piped-in soundscape hints at an occupant who has just left the room — the faint trill of laughter, a whisper just out of hearing. The sound of a horse-drawn carriage comes not from one speaker, but from several. The carriage seems to draw close to the front door, then weakens and disappears.

Severs offered tours of the house, but grew increasingly frustrated with guests who didn’t take his efforts seriously. He threw out one woman who claimed she was a descendent of the Jervis family. When a professor arrived at the house with a bunch of tittering American students, he threw out the lot of them.

Severs wasn’t a hit with the establishment, who sniffed at the ahistorical nature of the house and suspected him of being a fly-by-night Anglophile or, worse, simply an American. “Dennis was one of those Americans in England who seemed to have arrived from nowhere, to have no past, no roots and who, so irritatingly, could not be placed socially,” wrote a friend of their first acquaintance.

An architect interviewed for a BBC documentary about the house derides it as “a costume drama experience. It’s no more accurate than a Bronte film or a Jane Austen television series where everybody looks clean and happy and vital, and they’re never ill or suffering in any way.”

The Dickens Room

Look, but don’t touch

To judge this house against a standard of historical accuracy misses the point. Dennis Severs wasn’t interested in exactly re-creating an 18th century interior — plenty of museums do that already. He wanted to create a piece of theater, where visitors engaged their imaginations to fill in the blanks and take the set of characters he had created and make them living, breathing people with eccentricities, desires, dreams, and failings.

As a not-quite museum, 18 Folgate doesn’t offer clear rules of engagement other than asking guests to remain silent during their visit. Some visitors find themselves disappointed that no one interprets the rooms; others assume it’s more of an interactive space than the curators would want.

“So I guess we’re supposed to do something like this?” says a friend as he picks up a scone cooling by the hearth and tosses it in his mouth. [Writer’s note: don’t do that.] The cat bit him.

The house blocks out the present day nearly completely. Heavy drapes cover the windows, and the only light comes from candles. The quality of light changes from floor to floor as the material changes from luxury beeswax to machine-made candles, and the Jervis family experiences the advance of time and a fall into poverty. Only in the chilly attic, with filthy rags and creaking floorboards, is a glimpse of modern London available through a broken window. The view looks into an office building, where at 7 p.m. a man in a black fleece jacket sits alone in a conference room Aeron chair, his skin green from the glow of artificial light as he talks to someone somewhere else.

“Hopefully, when guests come in, they know nothing of the house,” says David Milne, now the house’s curator. “Then they can have an experience unlike anything they could imagine.”

Milne found the house as an 18-year-old with a romantic notion of decrepit Spitalfields born out of reading A Child of the Jago, a Victorian bestselling novel about a boy raised in the slums here. Picking through the crumbling lanes with names familiar from his reading, Milne spied the gas lamp outside 18 Folgate. He peeked through the window and found Severs’s baroque interior bathed in candlelight.

“I felt as if I were looking into the past,” Milne says now. “And I felt that since I’d been given this extraordinary image, I was never going to pay to walk through the door.”

The Lekeaux Room

The house and I are one

Severs spent his final years battling HIV and then cancer. First came the death of his partner, the ceramics artist Simon Pettet, who lined a second-floor fireplace with Delft-style tiles celebrating Spitalfields eccentrics of the 1980s. Then Severs himself died, in 1999, at age 51. He was laid in state in the living room of 18 Folgate, in a coffin lined in red velvet. Two hundred friends and admirers followed a hearse drawn by four black horses as it led his body from Christ Church Spitalfields.

In an interview with BBC Radio, Severs worried over the feeling the house took on when he left. “One of the things that really upset me recently is how much the house and I are one,” Severs said. “If I go away, I come back and the house is dead. The arrangement, the life, is gone, and it upsets me so much, because I would like to see it continue, standing for what I believe in: the role of the imagination in understanding anything.”

The Spitalfields Trust bought the house, and maintains his creation much as it was when Severs died. The layout remains the same, though the space changes with the season: floral bouquets in summer, sweetmeats at Christmas. A friend of the house still lives there. The Trust increased the tour schedule from weekly to twice a week to several times a week over the holiday period. Tickets to visit 18 Folgate during the Christmas season sold out nearly a month in advance.

Severs wrote a plot to his house as a rough guide to the rooms; it is less an explanation of the storyline and more a meandering philosophy on the nature of reason and instinct. He concludes the plot by thanking the guests who entered the space and fell under its spell.

“It was your humanity in response to the house that adds life to it and makes tending it so worthwhile,” Severs wrote. “You are our television.”

Photos courtesy of Roelof Bakker.

Colleen Hubbard lives in England, where she writes fiction and nonfiction.

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