American Dennis Severs (1948-99) bought this run-down, unmodernized 18th century house in 1979 and decided not to restore it but to "bring it to life". Spitalfields was quite bohemian at the time with other artists moving in too. (Gilbert & George live nearby and bought a similar house, although they have modernized their home.) Severs lived here, without electricity and other home comforts, while also creating a Huguenot silk weaver's home for Mr Isaac Jervis, his family, and their descendants.
18 Folgate Street
The Jervis family are imaginary but attention to detail here is incredible, although do not be mistaken in thinking that historical accuracy was the driving force behind this project. Severs was not a historian and never wanted anyone to think of his home as a museum. It is his interpretation of 18th century domestic life and was put together on a very limited budget.
A visit gives us a glimpse into the lives of the fictional inhabitants. Fresh food, drink and flowers are added before the public enter and you truly feel you are in the Jervis' home so although you never see them there are plenty of signs that they are close by. It's all lit by candlelight and there's a real fire burning in the kitchen.
Just before Severs died he came to the conclusion that no-one would want to maintain this unusual setting after he was gone but he has been proved wrong and the Spitalfields Trust have helped the curators to keep the building open to the public.
Folgate Street is an atmospheric narrow road with tall 18th century townhouses and period lampposts. There's a gas lamp flickering over the entrance to Dennis Severs' House and The Water Poet pub is opposite. There are wooden shutters on the ground floor on the House and silhouette cutouts in the first floor windows. I visited at midday (opening time) on a Sunday and there were already many people there before the door opened.
What To Expect
At opening time, a member of staff, usually Mick the House Manager, opens the door and explains to those waiting that this is not a museum but a private house. You need to "chill out and tune in" to enjoy the experience. You pay at the door and then your unguided tour commences. The door remains closed and guests enter in small groups. Phones and photography are not allowed and you can leave large bags in the hallway.
It is difficult to describe but you do feel you are in a different time inside the House. There are ten rooms to explore and each looks like a real home, with full domestic trappings. You need to be willing to meet it halfway as a visit here is about using all of your senses and discovering for yourself. No-one tells you which room you are in but you need to look around and work out who lives there. It's dark inside - remember it is only lit by candlelight - but there are plenty of clues to help you find out more about the family.
As you need all of your senses it is strongly recommended that you walk around in silence. This doesn't feel strange at all as you will want to "tune in" to the environment to get the full experience. This may make it hard for children so be aware this is not really a small person's attraction.
Curtains are drawn so you are not distracted by the outside world and can immerse yourself in this strange wonderland. Like a cross between a film set and a true home, it is 'dressed' for the public with fresh fruit in the bowls, tea on the table, and toast in the kitchen. Stand still in each room as there are sounds to help transport you through time such as church bells and chatter, and the smells are stronger if you close your eyes, especially the cloves in the master bedroom.
As you move around the House the creaking of floorboards from other visitors make you think the Jervis family are nearby and there's certainly a confusion with reality when here. The home seems more real as it is not perfect. You get to see the rooms a visitor would not normally enter if the 'residents' were here and you can see the way they lived with broken tea cups on the floor, letters being read at the table and a note pinned to the waist of a dress with 'let this out' telling us the lady of the house may be expanding with age.
The top floor is a much sadder experience. It gets dustier as you walk up but this adds to the scene as it's a later date and by 1837 the silk industry had declined in the area. Here you'll find the home of a poor silk weaver's family. William IV had just died and the family have gone to pay their respects. You hear the gun salutes at the Tower of London. Everything is dirty and there are holes in the ceiling. Paint is peeling off the walls and grubby clothes hang over the stairs. The children's clothes show you the young age of the family in this small attic.
I had been warned a visit here could be emotional and I certainly felt sad seeing the decline of the industry and the lifestyle of the workers. I could easily picture them using these rooms and sense the hardship they endured.
Lastly, I visited the basement which is dark and cold. Stay quiet and listen for the voices in the storeroom. In the kitchen you can hear church bells sounding a happy occasion, the fire is blazing and toast has just been cooked.
A visit to Dennis Severs' House is hard to explain and really needs to be experienced. I visited in the daytime but it would be amazing to return in the evening for one of the 'Silent Nights' or at Christmas when the house is decorated for the occasion.
18 Folgate Street
Nearest Tube Station: Liverpool Street
Use Journey Planner to plan your route by public transport.
Mondays following the 1st & 3rd Sundays: 12-2pm
Tickets & Booking: Prices vary depending on when you visit.
See the official website for full details.
No photography allowed.
Official Website: www.dennissevershouse.co.uk