London Museum Challenge #23: Dennis Severs’ House

December 28, 2013 § 5 Comments

Dennis Severs' House

Dennis Severs’ House

When I was a child (and, indeed, well into adulthood and, if I’m honest, right now) I was utterly enthralled by the Chicago Art Institute’s Thorne Miniature Rooms. Sixty-eight period rooms built on a scale of one inch to one foot, they are a dazzling display of the miniaturist’s art, but what makes them unique is that Mrs James Ward Thorne (who conceived them and supervised their creation) insisted that they all be made to look as if they were actually lived in – as if their tiny occupants had just stepped out moments before you happened upon them. The clues they left were often so small that it required extremely sharp eyes and an active imagination to spot them – a needle stuck haphazardly in a half-finished tapestry, a piece of sheet music slightly askew on the music desk of a spinet, a child’s doll or ball dropped on a hearthrug. I cannot be the only child who used to spend hours imagining the lives of the little people who I was sure would return and take possession of their homes as soon as the museum closed for the day.

Now imagine that situation writ large – life-size, in fact – and you have some idea of what Dennis Severs’ House is like. A Californian who arrived in London in the 1970s, he bought a Georgian terraced house in Spitalfields and set about turning it into… well, it’s hard to sum up quite what he created in a single word. A museum? An installation? Performance art? It’s all that and a bit more. Severs himself called it ‘still-life drama’, and perhaps we should heed him.

What Severs did was invent a fictional family that might plausibly have owned the house for a couple of centuries – Huguenot silk weavers by the name of Jervis (the anglicised version of Gervais) – and restore each floor of the house to look as it might have when each succeeding generation occupied it. But it isn’t a museum in the conventional sense of the word. No labels. No didactic wall texts. (There are unfortunately photocopied exhortations to be silent and respect Mr Severs’ conception of ‘still life drama’ in every room, which I wish they would get rid of – they, almost more than noisy visitors, break the spell.) Each room is arranged to look, feel, sound and even smell as if the Jervises have just darted out the door the instant before you’ve entered.

I deliberately left Dennis Severs’ House to the very end of my London Museum Challenge for a very particular reason – I wanted to see it in the dead of winter, my thinking being that failing light and Christmas decorations would be an excellent combination. So I arrived last Sunday, the day after the winter solstice, grey and cold, with the light already sliding out of the sky, to find a startlingly long queue outside the door (I had no idea the place was so popular!) and the door and ground floor windows festooned with greenery and red ribbons. After shivering and stamping my feet to keep warm for what seemed an age (really only about twenty minutes), I was finally ushered through the door by a soft-spoken, grey-haired man (whom I later found out is the curator) who took my money and explained the ‘plot’ and the house rules – no photography, no phones, and above all, no talking… and then I was in the dark.

It took a few long minutes for my eyes to adjust to the gloom and for me to feel confident enough in my sight to attempt the narrow, winding staircase down to the cellar. The back room was eerie and deserted (although I don’t know how much I might have missed due to my eyes still acclimatising to the dark), but the kitchen took my breath away. It was full of firelight reflected off blue and white tiles but what immediately drew my eyes was the heavy table that dominated the room, heaped with all manner of festive food. The air smelled of sweet spices, citrus and pine needles. In one corner of the table were massed a small army of jellies that appeared to have been recently released from their turreted moulds. Transparent and golden, they quivered and trembled from the vibrations of my steps. I felt as if a ghost had just brushed past me.dennis severs house kitchen

And so it continued. A lady’s drawing room scented with lavender, tea cooling in the cups, one of which had been knocked over in surprise. An elaborate porcelain epergne filled with crystallised fruit set on a table on a landing with a note to the servant asking that the children not be allowed too many pieces. The rooms on the upper floors clearly represented later and less prosperous generations of the Jervis family, when silk weavers had fallen on harder times – the attic, hung with greyed linen, looked like the setting of a Dickens novel sprung to life (and brought home more powerfully than his prose just how miserable life could be for a poor lodger in a garret). One of the most startling of the rooms was a smoking room that had apparently just witnessed a drunken argument – overturned chairs, scattered cards, an empty punchbowl, punch fumes hanging heavy in the air.dennis severs house smoking room

By the time I came to the end of the tour – or the story – I was torn between a desire to stay in this powerfully evocative time capsule and an equally strong desire for assurance that the present, in all its cold grey wintriness, was still there outside the door. Stepping outside was both a relief and a rude shock. By the time I had reached the end of the street and turned into noisy, traffic-filled Bishopsgate I was already thinking about a return visit – perhaps in summer.

Dennis Severs’ House might not fulfill the most stringent definitions of what a museum is – and I know it contains a few anachronisms that would raise purists’ eyebrows – but it is one very singular man’s vision made tangible, and an enchanting experience for anyone with the imagination to appreciate it.

May it continue for a very long time to come.

Tally: 23 down, 0 to go… for now.

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