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Dennis Severs House evokes the London past -- and you better pay attention

The house shows life in the 1700s and honors its founder's quirks.

January 17, 2010|By Laurie Winer
  • The house was meticulously decorated to transport select visitors back in time.
The house was meticulously decorated to transport select visitors back… (Alan Williams / Dennis Severs…)

Reporting from London — At the narrow doorway on Folgate Street, a man urges you to please enter and go through the house in complete silence. Also, he warns, there will be no electricity.

And so begins a visit to the Dennis Severs House, one of London's most enchanting historical oddities. Built in 1724, the five-story house is a collection of objects laid out as if the family who lived there three centuries ago had just left . . . or were perhaps just in the next room. It would be wrong to call this a museum since the family, the Jervises, are entirely made up. Severs, who bought the house in 1979, considered it a work of art -- his work of art.

A visitor views by natural light or dim candle the portraits, the half-written shopping lists, the knife handle protruding from the day-old bread, the books, pamphlets and bric-a-brac and, on an upper floor, the unmade four-poster bed, its damask curtains held back by chords and tassels -- each detail designed to evoke 18th century life, including the (recorded) sounds of church bells, a carriage passing on the street and voices that seem to be emanating from elsewhere in the house. Most visceral of all is the smell of orange peels and cinnamon cloves used to offset the presence of urine in a chamber pot.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of the house is that its creator, Dennis Severs, was born and raised in Escondido, Calif. Severs bought the house in 1979 when he was 31. He lived in it and continued to work on it until he died 10 years ago at age 51.

Severs lived in the house, his own work of art, which he meticulously decorated in order to transport himself and select visitors back in time, when, he would have you believe, it was home to the Jervises, a family of bourgeois silk weavers who emigrated from France. Mind you, the Jervises didn't exist, except as a figment of Severs' imagination and as the raison d'être of his house.

On the top floor, the Jervis' fine oak furniture gives way to the squalid laundry of the renters who supposedly took over in the late 19th century. In this way, Severs wordlessly spins the tale of the house's decline, before it and others in the historic area known as Spitalfields became the darling of preservationists in the 1960s and '70s. When Severs bought the dilapidated house,he said, his purpose was not to renovate it but to bring it back to life.

On a first-floor desk, scribbled with quill pen on a piece of paper, are the words "pay attention," and that is what Severs asked, or literally demanded, of visitors to the house. He wanted people to use all five senses when investigating the past.

And when Severs was around to administer the tours, woe to the tourist who jingled coins, asked a coarse question or in any way seemed to disrespect the objects Severs had lovingly assembled. These folks he would forcibly eject into the street. Often, there was shrieking. The remaining visitors would then grow very quiet and attentive. That is how Severs wanted them.

"He terrified them into submission," recalls historian and neighbor Dan Cruickshank, who bought his nearby house in 1978. "He did it to open them up to the experience."

The Spitalfields Trust keeps the house open, thanks in part to the dedicated overseer Mick Pedroli, a former friend and employee of Severs. To pretty much everyone's surprise, the house not only continues to survive as a peculiar attraction but is also more popular than ever, attracting 15,000 people a year even though it is open only at odd hours. Admission is 10 or 12 pounds ($16.30 or $19.50), depending on the time you visit.

British fascination

Who was Dennis Severs, and what is the continuing allure of his singular and somewhat fanciful vision? He was born in 1948 to an elderly father, a beloved mother, and half brothers who were already out of the house.

His niece Stacey Shaffer recalls his hometown as "full of people working on muscle cars in their driveway" -- not a hobby Severs cultivated. His mother, Helen, died in 1960 when he was 11. Dennis had no intention of following his father, Earl, into the gas station business. He was already intoxicated with certain depictions of Britain -- particularly the black-and-white adaptations of "Oliver Twist" and "My Cousin Rachel" that he watched on TV after school. He found the atmospheric lighting of the films and of certain British and Flemish paintings more romantic and attractive than anything he saw in the bleached sunlight of northern San Diego County. He delivered newspapers and washed restaurant dishes until he could afford to take himself to Britain for the first time at the age of 15. Finally, five days after finishing high school, he moved there for good.

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