Down a side street in London’s East End sits one of the world’s oddest and most fascinating museums. Part living museum, part still life, Dennis Severs’ house is the closest you can come to a portal in time.
I first discovered the house by chance after I moved to London in 2010. After a night out with friends, I was walking back to nearby Liverpool Street station, exploring some of East London’s winding roads and fascinating architecture, when I stumbled on a lamplit exterior with a group of people waiting outside its heavy wooden doors. As I passed, the doors opened briefly to admit the couple at the front of the group, and promptly closed again. The crowd shuffled politely forward, waiting patiently for their own admittance. The effect was slightly eerie, and I was immediately fascinated.
Having made a note of where this odd experience occurred, I went straight home and onto Google. It wasn’t long before I had identified the strange building as Dennis Severs’ house, a four-storey terrace at 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields.
In 1979, when Dennis Severs’ bought the building from The Spitalfields Trust, London’s East End was rundown and in danger of falling into further disrepair. After years of economic turbulence and damage sustained during the Second World War, the survival of much of the borough’s most important heritage was threatened. The house on Folgate Street was dilapidated, and Severs began the long process of renovating in a way that would be both sensitive to the area’s history, while staying true to himself and his artistic vision.
Spitalfields was popular with bohemians and artists at the time, and Severs was no exception. An eccentric artist from California, he moved to London, drawn to what he termed the “English light.” He used his artistic talents to slowly transform his house into the fictional home of a family of Huguenot silk weavers who had lived there since the building’s construction in 1724. As well as accepting visitors and showing them through the ten candle-lit rooms that served as his artistic opus, Severs’ made it his residence, adding to the lived-in feel, which makes the experience so unique.
The effect is one of waiting. Each room is unique in design and tells the story of multiple generations of the Jervis family. With sound effects and smells unique to each space, the feeling is that the inhabitants have just stepped out and that the house is waiting for them to return. For a brief moment, the outside world and the rapid pace of modern life melt away, and you can truly immerse yourself in something of another time.
The Huguenots were Calvinist Protestants who fled persecution in France in the 17th century. As a protestant nation, England was a natural choice as a place of safety. From the reign of Elizabeth I onward, England both patronised and aided the Huguenots, financing their emigration to England, the rest of the UK, and the British colonies. With many artisans and entrepreneurs within their ranks, they were welcomed with open arms and assimilated well into English society, with Huguenot settlements popping up all over the United Kingdom. Many textile manufacturers and weavers put down roots in Spitalfields, creating the hub of England’s silk weaving industry - a booming trade thanks to an import ban on French silks from the continent. After the repeal of the ban, however, Spitalfields’ fortunes declined, and the London suburb quickly turned from an affluent place for mercantile trade to a slum, where crime and poverty were rampant.
Through the fictional Jervis family, it is that story that Dennis Severs’ House endeavours to tell. Inspired by the light and tone of the paintings from the period, entering the house is like stepping through a frame and into the world of Victorian-era art. Guttering candles, combined with recorded noises, make the experience sensory in every aspect. It is an emotional engagement with the past rather than a purely academic one. The visitor experiences the generational decline as the Jervis family’s fortune moves from affluence to poverty through the changing social standing of the residents of Spitalfields.
Visitors travel through the house in small groups, maintaining silence to allow the house to tell its story. The tables are littered with half-eaten food, opened letters discarded as if the family reading them have just stepped out, smells to evoke a sense of life, and even ones to show the rot of poverty. While the museum is open during the day, I personally recommend the lamplight tours. There is something really special about approaching the door, lit by a sputtering lamplight, to wander its candle-lit hallways. The beauty of the house, however, is that there is something new to experience, no matter what time of the day you go. Seeing the tableau in the daylight is a vastly different experience from seeing it at night.
Unlike other museums, Dennis Severs’ house is not about historical accuracy. It’s about creating an experience. Where other museums are clinical in their representations of the past, Severs’ created a setting that feels like time travel. While the rooms are well designed to evoke a sense of accuracy to the past, much of what you see is reproduction—set dressing, if you will. It’s more akin to theatre in which the visitor is a participant.
Dennis Severs died on December 27, 1999. Shortly before his passing he wrote, “I have recently come to accept what I refused to accept for so long: that the house is only ephemeral. That no one can put a preservation order on atmosphere.” Thankfully, this dire premonition was not to be as The Spitalfields Trust repurchased the house and has been dedicated to preserving and maintaining its air of gothic romance ever since. They keep the museum open to the public, top-up the fungus in the attic to keep the smells and damp atmosphere, and even keep the museum cat as a permanent fixture, all of which makes the house such a unique experience.
Ultimately, Dennis Severs’ house is performative and requires active participation and the open mind of the visitor. You will get out of it what you put in, making the house’s motto especially prescient. Aut Visum Aut Non!: You either see it or you don’t.
Dennis Severs’ House is located at 18 Folgate Street, London, E1 6BX, and is a short walk from both Liverpool Street and Shoreditch High Street stations. Its opening hours are Thursday 18:00–21:30, Friday 17:00–21:00, Saturday 12:00–21:30, and Sunday 12:00–16:00. Entrance to the house is staggered and reservation is essential. The self-guided silent tours are £15 for daytime visits and £20 for their self-guided silent night visits. Guided tours are also available for £65 per person. All bookings can be made through the Dennis Severs’ house website where accessibility information is also available: https://dennissevershouse.co.uk
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Pamela is a freelance writer and editor with a background in history. As a former museum curator and professional historian, she has travelled the world visiting museums and collections most people have never heard of, and that love of the forgotten is what fuels her creativity.
For the past decade, Pamela has ghostwritten for both fiction and non-fiction writers over a variety of subjects and genres. One of her collaborations was even nominated for the Financial Times book of the Year in 2018.
Pamela lives in West Wales with her husband and a little tornado of a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The rugged beauty of the Pembrokeshire coast inspires her every day. When she’s not busy visiting historical places and museums, she spends her free time working on her first full-length novel that will explore the Arthurian mythology of Wales.