A look inside one of London's quirkier and more charming museums, an historical home of a family that never was.
LONDON – I love visiting homes when I travel. To see how people lived — the china they ate on, the settees they perched on, the beds they slept in, the ballrooms they danced in — instantly transports me. More than art on the walls or battlefields on the plains or monuments to fallen heroes, I want to get into the houses. That's my window onto a people, a moment, a history. In big cities, this usually means visiting homes that have been set up as museums: Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate on the Hudson River. In rural areas like the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and in the countryside in Oman, the jackpot is getting to visit an actual home, where the stove is still hot with the morning's coffee.
Dennis Severs' House in London's Spitalfields neighborhood is a curious thing. The home of the Jervis family, Huguenot silk weavers who lived a few hundred years ago, it's filled with elaborate furnishings and details from their lives, down to grocery lists and toast caddies and letters to friends and the quills used to write them.
Only the whole thing is an elaborate work of fiction created between 1979 and 1999 by Dennis Severs, an American-born artist who bought the ten-room Georgian house at a time when Spitalfields was a much sketchier London neighborhood and then set about painstakingly converting the entire house into a time capsule, inventing the family who lived there and their story.
Walking the four floors from basement to attic, you live through the progression of the socio-economic phases in the family's history between 1724 and the early 20th century. From great wealth in the parlor and drawing room to abject poverty in the attic, you're left to invent your own theories about how and why the fall came about. Economic depression? Political turmoil? Scandalous affairs? A little of all of the above?
And therein lies the fun and the drama. The Severs' House is a living museum experience that feels very much like a game. The whole house is a diorama of amazing details, with rooms staged in a state of activity, as if the family had just walked out a minute before you walked in. The sheets are rumpled on the bed. (Who was sleeping with whom?) Breakfast remains half-cooked in the kitchen. (And the bread smells delicious.) Cracked walnuts litter the fireplace, remnants from boys' night in. (Was there a fight? Why the pistols?) Visitors are encouraged to walk in silence through a house illuminated by fireplace and candles. The whole experience is like walking into a painting, one of intrigue and mystery and drama. You can't possibly take it all in, which may be why the motto of the house is "Either you see it or you don't."
Clearly, you're meant to immerse yourself in the experience, which may be why the signs very clearly read "no photographs." (Unless, that is, you're Vogue magazine and want to rent the place for a photo shoot.) But I'm stubborn, especially when the visuals are this dazzling and I know my memory won't be as accurate as I want it to be. So in the name of good service to my dear Fathom readers, I went rogue, ignoring both the guards, who yelled when they caught me fiddling with my camera's low light settings, and my beloved English husband, a former photographer who is way more respectful than I am. The photos are fuzzier than I'd like, but I hope that only adds intrigue to the details and conveys more of the magic. You'll see for yourself when you go.
Dennis Severs' House
18 Folgate Street
London E1 6BX