Peter Ackroyd, the British writer and critic, said of the Dennis Severs House, “The journey through the house becomes a journey through time; with its small rooms and hidden corridors, its whispered asides and sudden revelations, it resembles a pilgrimage through life itself”. The journey Ackroyd describes aptly represents the mysterious path each visitor takes through 18 Folgate Street in the East End of London.
The house is a veritable puzzle of real and constructed stories lain over one another so that the edge of one melts into another, blurring the boundaries of reality and imagination. You become implicated just by entering into Dennis’ world. To enter is to become, in some magical way, part of another story that is uniquely your own. The conspicuous absence of Dennis and the inhabitants he so carefully nurtured has created a vacuum which you are easily drawn into.
First there is the story of Dennis Severs himself. Born in Southern California in the small town of Escondido, Dennis became fascinated by all things English, especially the London light, or as some may say the lack thereof. He saved up money and in 1965, right after graduating from high school, he set out for London, where he remained until his death in 1999.
Intending to study law, Dennis enrolled in University only to change his mind shortly after and pursue a series of odd jobs. One of them, which was surely formative, saw Dennis driving horse and carriage tours through London while taking up residence in the carriage house.
It wasn’t until 1979 that he bought the house at 18 Folgate Street. And he was not alone in staking out territory in this area. Gilbert and George, famed British artists, became his neighbors and for a long time they were the only pioneers in that part of London. The area was run down and neglected, but, in large part because of neglect, the properties in the neighborhood maintained their original details.
One would typically set about renovating a house like this to bring it up to modern standards – at least install electricity and plumbing, as the house had none. But Dennis had other plans. He moved in immediately without any conveniences and started living like the fictitious Huguenot Jervis family who purportedly built the house in 1724.
Here is where the second story starts to emerge. The Jervis family were French protestant silk weavers who came to London and made it their home. Upon arrival they changed their name from the French “Gervais” to the easier and more English sounding “Jervis”.
Dennis conjured up the family to tell the story of the house through their lives and times. Over the years he added layer on layer to each of the ten rooms of the house, creating representations of the time and tastes of the Jervis family. With meticulous attention to detail, Dennis built up the everyday lives of the family, even down to the food they ate.
When Dennis started giving his famous nighttime tours, visitors would be dazzled by the succession of candlelit rooms, the smell of the Jervis’ meal still half consumed on the table, the fireplace crackling, and Mr Jervis’ pipe, quickly set aside as if he had to attend to something elsewhere and left the room moments before guests had arrived. He created a script for the house where each room was a scene in his own movie. Dennis coined the term “still-life drama” to describe his creation. His goal was to provide visitors with a rare opportunity to become lost in another time.
Initially, highbrow academics frowned on Dennis’ constructed fantasies as they were not factual, but reflected emotional connections to the past. But nowadays Dennis’ ideas have come into vogue through a general recognition that a certain amount of theatrics is important, or necessary, to engage the public in history by bringing the past back to life.
On the day we arrived at 18 Folgate Street to meet the Jervises, our host David Milne had already woken up the house in preparation for our visit. A fire was crackling in the kitchen, candles lit, and even though it was a sunny day outside the house was blanketed in a kind of twilight haze. Shutters were partially opened for the light, but not too wide as it was a cold day and too much window exposure lets the heat from the fireplace escape.
The Jervises had apparently entertained in the parlor the night before and had made a late night of it. The remnants of the evening’s food and libations littered the parlor table. It looked like great fun. I wish we had come earlier.
Walking through the dim candlelit rooms on a bright sunny London morning, I better understood the character of Hogarth’s London society scenes and realized that there was not much artistic license taken in those paintings. They were true-to-life in their depiction of London domestic interiors of the day.
Dennis’ house now is operated by a trust, with David Milne continuing Dennis’ life work. It’s wonderful to watch David lovingly arranging little bits here and there; a bowl with rose petals sitting on a dresser, a half finished meal on a table with a few mussels left on the plate, and playing cards left on a table in mid-game. The smoky fireplace in the top floor has left a haze in the room and the bed is still unmade. It is a very intimate scene but you never feel like an intruder. You are always part of the story as it continues along.
A third story surrounding the house is now just starting to take root. Brian Selznick, illustrator and author of the bestsellers, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, was so taken in by his visit to the Dennis Severs House that he made it a character in his new book, “The Marvels”. We got an advanced copy at our office in New York and were thrilled to read Selznick’s tale woven around such an intriguing place. Being advocates of experience-based travel, it is great to see a travel destination inspire such a fascinating piece of literature.
Selznick’s story takes place in the 1990s and chronicles the experiences of Joseph, who runs away from school, finding himself in the puzzling house of his estranged uncle in London. The book captures the nature of family, not necessary the one we are born with but the wider one we acquire during our lifetime. If you don’t have an opportunity to travel for a while, The Marvels takes you on a great trip from the comfort of your home. We recommend it.
Selznick’s and Severs’ stories are woven throughout the book. After reading The Marvels it’s clear that Selznick and Severs are kindred spirits with Selznick acting as an ambassador for Dennis’ story. Although the two storytellers never had the opportunity to meet, they have both come to share the same house through the tales they have spun.
On my way out I catch a glimpse of two well-worn New York Yankees baseball caps in the hallway, notable because they are the only modern thing I have seen on my three hour tour. I chuckled at the visual disjuncture and David responded, “Dennis wore one of those every day. We keep them there where he left them”.
Stepping out onto the front steps David sends me on my way. It was now lunch time in the busy Spitalfields district with people rushing through the old cobblestone streets. The modern world was a bit shocking and I wished I could retreat back to Dennis and David’s 18th century for just a little while longer.
< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.
To book a tour of Dennis Severs House, go to; www.dennissevershouse.co.uk. Plan ahead, the house cannot take many visitors and tours tend to book up fast. With the “the Marvels” now on sale it will soon be an even more popular destination.
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