London Day 3: Dennis Severs’ House

It was raining when I arrived for my evening visit to Dennis Severs’ House, and ringing the bell at the dark door I was greeted by the friendly overseer of the house and my eyes then started to adjust to candle light. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect of this London house in Spitalfields that was set up as a “living painting” by the late artist Dennis Severs, as photographs I’d seen online made it look like any other carefully preserved historic home. Yet this was all built by one man over 20 years, from 1979 to 1999,  while he lived in and laid out the meticulous rooms, capturing different time periods in an effort not to celebrate the beauty of single things, but a build a tableau vivante that you moved through as much with your imagination as your body.

(copyright Dennis Severs’ House)

Although Severs was born in California, he was drawn to London by the “English light,” and the house he has left behind feels like its creator has only just left, and that its fictitious Jervis family has also only momentarily stepped out from the rooms. Fresh fruit rests on tables, fire crackles from inviting hearths, there is the soft mumble of voices around corners, the words difficult to catch. You feel like you may be intruding on the lives of the people who have placed the flowers in vases and left their food half consumed. Only a few visitors are permitted to enter the house at a time, so you go through much of it alone, with no phones or photographs allowed. While visits are offered in daylight, I really recommend going to the house once the sun has set and the flicker of candles softly lights the way.

(copyright Dennis Severs’ House)

The structure of the house dates to 1724, and the Jervis family is meant to have lived there from 1725 to 1910. You follow their family through wealth and misfortune, eras captured by the tone and emotion of each room. It may be odd to say that there is emotion in the spaces empty except for you the visitor, but there is something entrancing that’s difficult to describe that comes from the combination of the natural, yet deliberate, arrangement and choice of furniture, along with the subtle sounds, and smells that place you in a moment. The motto of the house is “Aut Visum Aut Non!,” or “You either see it or you don’t,” but I think it would have been more accurate as “You either feel it or you don’t.” I liked the notes left by Severs around the house that emphasized this, harassing you about looking at objects instead of the big picture and telling you to “pay attention!”.

(copyright Dennis Severs’ House)

The visit starts in the basement, which was quite dark, and then you move up through salons and sitting rooms, bedrooms and parlors. Some are the realms of a particular family member, others capture a moment in their story, such as a ladies’ party that has a chaotic edge with tipped over tea cups and a pastry stabbed through with a fire poker while a clock wildly chimes a frantic hour.  In another you walk by an unmade bed, and make small connections between the woman in the portrait and the clothing that has been arranged just beyond. All the details are suddenly part of a larger world, the objects are belongings, the rooms breathing with these people. I got so lost in the place that it was a shock to suddenly be at the top floor and stand in a room in ruins, the family’s fortune gone with the turn in the economy, the once lavish furnishings in tatters.

(copyright Dennis Severs’ House)

I highly recommend a visit to the Dennis Severs’ House, as it is now one of my favorite places in London. Less a historic time capsule, it is more akin to something like the immersive theatre experience Sleep No More, where you are transported through all senses to another world. Yet unlike that experience which relies much on human interaction and dance, here you are left with your own mind to absorb and decipher the intense details and pull them into a complete work of art, a still-life painting where you are able to move through the brushstrokes.

2 thoughts on “London Day 3: Dennis Severs’ House

  1. deliriumdog says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Never heard of the place and the web site is pretty mysterious. Looks amazing. I wonder if folks from Punchdrunk were inspired by the place.

  2. Allie says:

    Maybe! They certainly take on the Severs’ House’s skill in building atmosphere through objects.

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