Here is a sensation I would like to bottle as a sal volatile for monotone days: that of emerging from a darkened movie theatre into the light. ‘Going to the cinema is like going to bed and going to sleep,’ someone recently told me. ‘You close your eyes but then you’re opened up to these dreams you see before you.’ To wake up is to be disoriented, your mind lagging behind your body for a moment until the fictive retreats in the daylight. This is the feeling of allowing yourself to playfully doubt who and where you are. It’s the ‘pop!’ of recentering yourself and the release from the mesmerising focus provided by alternative spaces.
When it comes to liminal zones, I would not typically relate the house to the instability and betwixt-and-betweenness of the cinema, the church or the museum. But Dennis Severs’ House is not a typical house, evoking impressions of all three. It is a furnished timeline and a ‘still-life drama’, a superlative of a house just off Spitalfields Market (https://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk/the-tour/). Dennis Severs claimed the ruins of the Georgian terraced house in 1979. Fragmenting the traditional artistic house-museum, he decked his halls in eighteenth- to nineteenth-century styles, attributed the historical bric-à-brac to an imagined Huguenot family of silk weavers and lived there himself as he thought they would have before bequeathing the story to the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust.
Dennis Severs' House. Photo: Roelof Bakker, 2011
Atmosphere is everything at Dennis Severs’ House, where the flickers and draughts, crackling logs and birdsong, and sense of pregnant pauses and missed connexions make for a complete sensory immersion. The conceit is that just before you enter, your eighteenth- or nineteenth-century analogue has dashed out. Impossibly, you follow her from room to room. If you suspend your disbelief, you might get caught up and conceive to think of seeing something—the swish of a skirt. At one point, mise en scène evolves into mise en abyme as you enter a room arranged in imitation of a painting hanging on the wall, the bodied, painterly effect becoming vertiginous. This potential energy is matched by overflowing visual materiality. An immovable feast sprawls across four storeys: heaps of walnuts and candied oranges and dense mounds of cake and glasses of tea and sherry and someone’s embroidery and prayer books and letters and cartes de visite and paper chains and playing cards and walls of porcelain…
At this point, I cannot help but fabricate what all this bohemian bijou contains, because this is the first rule: no pictures. Rule number two: no talking. When silence is golden, phones are verboten and documenting your experience is beside the point, it makes for a heady religiosity. The House may not be neatly classifiable in terms of heritage, antique or museum, but it is indeed a ritualised space. Through the deference of quiet, concentration and mere procession from one room to the next, you show your faith. Above all, you are implicated in the production: forever trailing behind an absence you acknowledge in your presence, a figment you reify in playing the game. Who is animating whom?
After starting in the cellar and creeping up to the top floor, boundaries start to blur and time begins to iron itself out. A tear in the ceiling—am I imagining this?—lets in the outside air, and you retrace your steps to finish in the parlour back on the ground floor. There, scattered brochures and contemporary Royal Wedding tea cups anachronistically tug you back into reality before you emerge to street lights, crisp cold and the distant purr of cars. You wake up.
Back in front of 18 Folgate Street, I received my final push back into reality. My brother picked me up, and we hurtled away into the night.
Dennis Severs’ House can be experienced at 18 Folgate Street on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 17.00—21.00. These Silent Nights cost £15 per person, and reservations must be made in advance. Daytime visits on Sunday between noon and 16.00 or on Monday from noon to 14.00 are also possible, with no reservation required and concession prices of £5.
Learn more at https://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk.