Dennis Severs' House
Dennis Severs' House
1724; 1979-1999, interior, Dennis Severs
18 Folgate Street e1
020 7247 4013; www.dennissevershouse.co.uk
Tours only. Check website for schedule.
Dennis Severs' House is a museum of sorts, but also the very opposite of a museum. It's a Georgian terraced house tucked in a back street between Spitalfields Market and the City, restored in the styles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Californian artist Dennis Severs, who died in 1999. The best time to visit is a dark winter evening (you have to book a slot beforehand). A man in a black shirt and black trousers will open the door (you have to knock, there's no bell) and take £12 off you, in return for which you are allowed to walk around the house for forty-five minutes. The man will tell you that you have to do this in complete silence. There is no electric light in Dennis Severs' House, only candles and open fireplaces.
Stumbling from room to room, you feel not only like you are travelling back in time but like you have walked straight into a Dickens novel, or the Hogarth painting that hangs in one of the rooms. There are half-made mince pies on the kitchen table and spilt glasses of punch in the smoking room, and there's a real canary in the lounge. Occasionally, you can hear the haunting chime of clocks, the rattle of a horse-drawn carriage outside, and the creak of footsteps in the room next door; it's as if the people who used to live here are standing around the corner.
As with any good story, you feel like you've uncovered a secret by the time you get to the end, the last room in the house. On the top floor, eighteenth-century opulence gives way to shocking nineteenth-century poverty. The wallpaper is peeling off the damp walls, the bed linen is filthy, there's a stench of oysters and vinegar, and it's freezing cold. It comes as a shock when you realise the banisters have been burned for firewood: such was the completeness of Severs's operatic vision that he has planted the seeds of its own destruction inside it. As youn walk into the cold winter night, you will try to touch the next automobile on the pavement just to see if it's real.
Philip Oltermann was born in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Since 1997 he has lived in London, where he works as an editor at The Guardian. He is writing a book on Anglo-German meetings.