Things to do in Shoreditch – Dennis Severs’ House
One of East London’s best kept secrets is the curious world contained within Dennis Severs’ House. This is one East End house I will never have on my books – indeed, it should be preserved for the nation and is currently in the care of Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust.
Severs, an artist, bought 18 Folgate Street in Shoreditch in 1979, and lived in it until his death in 1999. During the time he lived there, he turned it into what he called a “still-life drama,” an intense art installation where visitors experience two hundred years of family life, condensed into ten astonishing rooms.
An evening visit is much the best way to see the house, when candlelight and firelight help to evoke the atmosphere of the 18th and 19th centuries. As you move silently from room to room, you not only feast your eyes on an incredible collection of objects, meticulously arranged to create a particular era, but you also feel the presence of the house’s family.
Dennis Severs made every room personal. Cups of tea, just poured through the tea strainer; games of cards abandoned half way through; hats, wigs and pairs of boots taken off for comfort and forgotten in corners. Every bed is still unmade, the inhabitants having just awoken, or is that the shape of someone still asleep?
Sounds and smells add to the atmosphere, from horse-drawn carriages outside the windows to the creak of floorboards and footsteps overhead. The smell of food, cloves, spilled wine and more are all created very effectively, giving you an instant sense of the person whose room you’re in.
There are two incredible things about this house. Firstly, it works. It shouldn’t – to artificially create a sense of people being just out of sight must be impossible; surely they really need to be just in the next room in order to create the right atmosphere? But Dennis Severs observed human life very carefully, and observed our reactions too – he knew how many details we need to sense a person within a house and put all of those details in for us. As the house motto goes, “you either see it or you don’t.”
The second incredible thing is that Dennis Severs lived there through the 1980s and 90s, cooking (I assume) on the black leaded kitchen range, sleeping in one of the four poster beds, ever observed by the old portraits that hang on the walls and with nothing but candlelight after sunset. Goodness knows where his bathroom was. So many of the properties I sell are distinctly modern in character – much as I admire Severs’ dedication, I won’t be advising sellers to rip out their wiring any time soon!
Visit Dennis Severs House in Shoreditch, East London
Visiting Dennis Severs’ House is an amazing and unique experience, and one I recommend. Opening times and ticket prices vary, but all the information is on the website and the friendly team can give you any extra information you require.