So, this is billed as an ‘experience’ – a terraced house in Spitalfields, once lived in by Dennis Severs from the mid 1970s until his death in 1999. During this time he created period rooms, depicting 18th and 19th century eras. But this is far from being a straight re-creation of the time, for instance one room with a huge mix of Victorian ceramics and trinkets also included pictures of Queen Elizabeth II.
What exactly is the ‘experience’? Well, it’s really just walking round (in silence) taking in the atmosphere, there’s no actress or video to follow, just the objects on display, the smells and the sounds.
The house is set up as though the members of the 18th/19th Century family who once lived there are still alive, with half empty glasses, sugar spilling out of bowls and pipes filled with tobacco ready to be smoked. Mrs Edward Jenner’s portrait hangs above the mantelpiece and her tea set is laid out on the table in the middle of the Drawing Room with Severs’ note reminding us that without Mrs Jenner it’s just a room full of antiques. Mrs Edward Jenner, however, is purely a fictional character, as are the rest of the silk weaver family whose footsteps you are imagining to be walking in and whose air you are appearing to breathe. But the fiction of it all doesn’t make it any less interesting.
My favourite part of the house was walking up to the top floor and seeing the old, but nicely presented decorations turn into decaying walls, falling down ceilings, tatty fabrics and cobwebs. It looks like the rooms have been left for decades to decay and it sounds like bombs are falling outside. But it turns out it is 1837, William IV’s death knell is tolling and the drab rooms you are standing in have been let out to a poor family.
Its a fun, different way to look round an historic house, nothing is roped off and it is presented in an imaginative way – cross between museum and art installation. This also allows for different ways to present ideas, with one room dedicated the the aftermath of a party as depicted in a Hogarth painting in the room, and in the poor rooms short extracts about poverty in the 18th Century are stuck to the door.
House opening times are quite restricted, which does make it even more of a treat when you enter and adds to the atmosphere of seeing something special where the inhabitants have just popped out. But it does mean that you have to share it with the rest of the eager viewers queuing up outside so you get little chance to actually appreciate it in the peace that was intended.
Dennis Severs House, 18 Folgate Street, E1 6BX
£7 (lunchtime visit), £10 (evening visit)