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In Pictures: Dennis Severs’ House at Christmas

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Dennis Severs’ House is not a museum but a private home that opens to the public as a time capsule to London’s past. The Christmas spirit returns to Dennis Severs’ House with the Annual Christmas Installation from 25 November 2021 to 9 January 2022.

How It All Started

American artist Dennis Severs (1948–99) bought this unmodernized 18th-century House in 1979 and decided not to restore it but to “bring it to life.” Spitalfields was quite bohemian at the time, with other artists moving in too. (Gilbert & George lived nearby and bought a similar house, although they have modernized their home.)

Folgate Street

Folgate Street is an atmospheric, cobbled side street in Spitalfields with tall townhouses and period lamp posts. Dennis Severs’ House at 18 Folgate Street has a gas lamp flickering over the entrance and wooden shutters over the windows.

18 Folgate Street

Severs lived here without electricity and other home comforts while he created a Huguenot silk weaver’s home for the fictional Mr. Isaac Jervis, his family, and their descendants. Yes, an imaginary family, but he dressed the House to make visitors believe they have just popped out of the room.

The Jervis family may not be real, but there has been impressive attention to detail in the House, although it should be said that historical accuracy has never been the driving force behind this project. Severs was not a historian and never wanted anyone to think of his home as a museum. It is his interpretation of 18th-century domestic life and was put together on a very limited budget.

The Spitalfields Trust

Just before Severs died, he came to the conclusion that no one would want to maintain this unusual setting after he was gone. But he has been proved wrong, and The Spitalfields Trust has helped the curators to keep the building open to the public regularly.

Immersive Experience

Dennis Severs’ House was already an ‘immersive attraction’ long before that became a fashionable idea. Give in to what you see, and you start to believe the Jervis family must be in another room. For this reason, phones must be switched off, and there is a no photography rule. You are asked to remain silent throughout your visit as you are more likely to ‘connect’ with the House that way. And remember, you are not to touch anything (there are notes in each room as visitors need reminding).

A visit gives us a glimpse into the lives of the fictional inhabitants. Fresh food, drink, and flowers are added before the public enter, and you truly feel you are in the Jervis’ home, so although you never see them, there are plenty of signs that they are close by. The fires are lit in winter, and the lighting is candlelight.

In Pictures: Dennis Severs’ House at Christmas
© Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

Annual Christmas Installation

The Annual Christmas Installation is always very popular so do book ahead as spaces are limited. For the festive season, the House is dressed with seasonal decorations for the fictional inhabitants’ Christmas celebration.

Evidence of them is to be found in every room. Discover the kitchen where food is being prepared and the pies and jellies are freshly baked and ready to be served. In the dining chamber, the table is almost set, and drinks have already been poured. The smells and seasonal sounds so evocative of the age will capture your imagination, stimulate your senses and guide you through the House.

In Pictures: Dennis Severs’ House at Christmas

What To Expect

Visitors have to wait outside until their timed arrival. Once tickets were scanned, we were told that the House covers the years from 1790 to 1915, although there were no more clues as to why those years were significant.

You enter with the others booked for the same time, and no guide joins you as you are to simply experience the place. You have to follow a one-way route, and there are silent staff/volunteers to point your way. The front door remains closed, and guests enter in small groups. There are five floors to explore and two rooms to see on each floor. The House is lit by candlelight, and no one tells you which room you are in, so you need to look around and work out who lives there.

The house motto is “You either see it or you don’t”.

Basement

In the very dark back room, you can see the ruins of St Mary’s Spital Leper Hospice 1197 AD. It really was very dark, so I could only see these ruins as there were by the window. 

Most of the basement is the large kitchen where you can see food being prepared. There are jellies turned out of copper molds and the fire is blazing. It was much easier in here to give in to the silence and imagine the residents were nearby. It was Dennis Severs’s intention to use visitors’ imagination as his canvas.

In Pictures: Dennis Severs’ House at Christmas

Dining Room

Back on the ground floor, the dining room is at the front of the House. The chandelier is decorated with whole oranges and fir tree branches. You can smell cloves and hear the ticking of the clock. The fire is lit, so it’s warm, and there’s music in the distance. Walnuts and oyster shells are on the sideboard, and a pomegranate that has been cut in half. There are letters on the table and little captions and notes for visitors to read.

What? You’re still looking at “things” instead of what “things” are doing?

First Floor

Red ribbon lines the walls on the stairs, and the ceiling over the first-floor landing is noticeably dirty.

The main room is the parlor. It is Mrs. Jervis’s Withdrawing Room and has forest green painted wooden paneled walls. There is a golden painted eagle over the doorcase and the fireplace. The entertainment is playing cards, music sheets, and a sewing basket. 

In the smaller back room, there is a small table and a couple of chairs facing the fireplace. This must have been for the man of the House as there are long smoking pipes on the table, and there are mens’ wigs and tricorn hats hanging on the wall. For this room, the suggestion is that you have stumbled into a Hogarth scene – the painting that hangs above the fireplace.

Second Floor

In the back room, there are mince pies and teacups on the table, plus an open book and reading glasses. There’s also a dressing table and a tidy bed which has wrapped Christmas presents at the foot.

The main bedroom must be Mr & Mrs. Jervis’s bedroom. Some window shutters are open, so there’s a bit more light. There’s an unmade four-poster bed with a random monkey ornament climbing a tasseled bed cord. Blue and white Delft pottery is on all of the walls, and a Spitalfields dress is hanging in a corner. You can also spot a man’s nightshirt and his shoes under a chair as if he has just kicked them off. 

In Pictures: Dennis Severs’ House at Christmas

Attic

There is grubby washing hanging over the stairs on strings. The children’s clothes show you the young age of the family in this small attic. There’s a noticeable deterioration to the building as there are large cracks in the walls and flaking paint. The top floor is a much sadder experience as it shows the decline of the silk industry in the area. It’s set in 1837, and William IV had just died, and the family have gone to pay their respects.

In the back bedroom, there’s a large messy bed which you can imagine being used by many children or a whole family. Mussels and bread are on the table, and there’s a basket of vegetables possibly grown in their small garden. It’s clear the occupants are poor, and the festive decorations are simple newspaper paper chains hanging on the walls. There is a child-size chair and a child’s walking stick which lets you know these are not healthy residents.

In the main bedroom, the four-poster bed is unmade, and grotesques around the top of the bed hold the drapes in their mouths. Everything is dirty, and there are many holes in the ceiling. In winter, the fire is not lit in the attic, and you are aware of the drop in temperature. The room is a state as the ceiling has many holes and is falling down. The walls are undecorated, and there is definitely a feeling of faded grandeur. There is a writing desk and books in one corner and references to Charles Dickens with David Copperfield and Bob Cratchet mentioned. We can imagine Tiny Tim seated by the fire – you can see his crutch.

Back to the Ground Floor

The final room is on the ground floor and is clutter-tactic! There are chocolate Santas on the mantlepiece and a Christmas tree in the corner. It has candles on it, but they are, thankfully, not lit. You’ll see Nutcracker figurines, dolls, a drum set, and a paper theatre. The room looks out onto a small courtyard.

There is a small shop, but I was hurried out so didn’t get to see it.

In Pictures: Dennis Severs’ House at Christmas
© Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

Conclusion

It is difficult to describe, but you do feel you are in a different time inside the House. As you move around, the creaking of floorboards from other visitors can make you think the Jervis family are nearby, and there’s certainly a confusion with reality when here. The home seems more real as it is not perfect.

I had been warned a visit here could be emotional, and I certainly felt sad seeing the decline of the industry and the lifestyle of the workers. I could picture them using these rooms and sense the hardship they endured.

As the owner of an old house, I question the sanity of leaving the building to continue to deteriorate. But it is a contrast to the renovated townhouses and the glass and steel office blocks in the area.

In Pictures: Dennis Severs’ House at Christmas

Visitor Information

Address: Dennis Severs’ House, 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London E1 6BX

Visit Duration: A visit to Dennis Severs’ House usually lasts under an hour but it’s worth giving in to the story and enjoying your time there. It’s surreal but wonderful too.

Official Website: dennissevershouse.co.uk

Extra Information

  • All tours involve walking around the House and climbing stairs.
  • Stiletto heels cannot be worn in the House.
  • Only handbags and small backpacks are allowed in the House.
  • Due to the age and character of the building, the House has dim lighting, uneven floors, steep stairs and other hazards.
  • Arrive on time as latecomers will not be admitted.
Laura Porter
Author: Laura Porter

Laura Porter writes AboutLondonLaura.com and contributes to many other publications while maintaining an impressive afternoon tea addiction. You can find Laura on Twitter as @AboutLondon, on Instagram as @AboutLondon and @AboutLondon Laura on Facebook.

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