18 Folgate Street, Dennis Severs House and its Little Instruments

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“The late 20th century may be a fascinating place, but surely … nobody would ever want to live in it?” Dennis Severs

Aut Visum Aut Non!: 'You either see it or you don't'.

Aut Visum Aut Non!: ‘You either see it or you don’t’.

 

Last Monday after leaving Angela Flanders boutique on Artillery Row, I hopped over to Dennis Severs House at 18 Folgate Street. I really knew very little about the house going into the experience so I was really unsure of just what to expect. The motto of the house is “you either see it or you don’t”, and I left 18 Folgate Street feeling as if I had had an experience quite unlike any other I had before.


“From where you stand in Folgate Street you hear a door being unlocked from inside.  As it opens you should remind yourself of the four dimensions.  The first dimension is back and forth – the second is up and down; both like the door itself – are flat.  The third dimension is not flat, but comes forward and goes back to constitute a space between.  Within it life happens.  The door is opened, but now you hesitate.  The third dimension before you contains something more than space; as thick as treacle – it hosts a foreign fourth.  And the fourth dimension, dear reader is time.” Dennis Severs


"Dennis was one of those Americans in England who seemed to have arrived from nowhere, to have no past, no roots and who, so irritatingly, could not be placed socially." (From Dennis Severs obituary in the Guardian)

“Dennis was one of those Americans in England who seemed to have arrived from nowhere, to have no past, no roots and who, so irritatingly, could not be placed socially.” (From Dennis Severs obituary in the Guardian)

 

In the prologue of his book 18 Folgate Street, Mr Severs writes “I bought the house in 1979 – not so much to restore as to bring it to life as my home. With a candle, a chamber pot, and a bedroll, I began sleeping in each of the house’s ten rooms so that I could arouse my intuition in the quest for each room’s soul. Then, having neared it, I worked inside out to create what turned out to be a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbor the light and the spirit of the various ages. As things came even closer together I began to realise that the material things I had been collecting all my life were really a cast of characters; and that 18 Folgate Street was destined to be their stage.”

The shifting fortunes of the Gervais (later Jervis) family is the narrative of a tour through the house.

The shifting fortunes of the Gervais (later Jervis) family is the narrative of a tour through the house.

 

That very much encapsulates my experience whilst walking through Dennis Severs house. It certainly did not feel like being in a museum or even a recreation. Perhaps because it is not just about what you are seeing. As you walk through the house you can hear sounds of people moving in other rooms, voices calling  from outside, and the gentle clamor of every day life. My ears were on high alert as I moved from room to room trying to capture the essence of each space. Each room also seems to have its own fragrance as well. Whether it be the aromas of food cooking, a tray of sweets in the hallway, or some of the more unsavory smells of every day human existence.

"Forgive the shallow—who must chatter. Silence brings to the fore deeper sensations with which many are both unacquainted and ill at ease. They fear a loss of control: they talk."  Visitors are encouraged to take in the house in silence.

“Forgive the shallow—who must chatter. Silence brings to the fore deeper sensations with which many are both unacquainted and ill at ease. They fear a loss of control: they talk.” Visitors are encouraged to take in the house in silence.

 

I felt as if I had entered each room just as someone had departed. I saw plates with uneaten food, tables in disarray, and even chairs knocked over, but aside from the obvious physical clues I had the strangest sensation that the rooms  felt oddly occupied in a way I hadn’t experienced or maybe given much thought to before. Perhaps because it is something easily taken for granted as often when you are in the home of another they soon rejoin you where ever it is you might be. And I think because I had this sense of entering the spaces when the occupant was not expecting one to be there, I was then privy to seeing things I would not generally see when being in the home of one when I was expected. I was seeing their life as it happens in a completely unguarded way and seeing all of the little instruments they used to conduct their life. Every day objects with use and purpose, a role to fulfill, a part to play and more importantly with a life and an energy that twitted about the atmosphere, which Mr Severs write so eloquently about in his book as the space between things. There is an astonishing amount of attention to detail to be appreciated throughout the house, but what is so remarkable about is that it feels as if it is all done so naturally. Said object is in said space because that is its natural place to be to fulfill its role.

 

"So the house has a mission, and it believes that the natural state of human intelligence is not - like a painting - flat or square, but like this room it extends out and all around us.  The house plots to work its magic to ensure that each visitor goes away with that perception." Details from the Smoking Room

“So the house has a mission, and it believes that the natural state of human intelligence is not – like a painting – flat or square, but like this room it extends out and all around us. The house plots to work its magic to ensure that each visitor goes away with that perception.” Details from the Smoking Room

 

Furthermore I feel that because of the history of Mr Severs’ legacy of having lived in 18 Folgate Street from when he bought it in 1979 with basically nothing, forming a relationship with each room and filling it accordingly with care, attention and love, something that is still carried on today by Mick Pedroli who lived with Dennis in the house from 1995. I feel that putting that amount of energy and that type of feeling into this house has filled it with a sort of magic, that aside from the sensory extravaganza a visit to the house is, there is also something quite palpable in the atmosphere of 18 Folgate Street, and if you should choose to pay a visit, which I highly recommend, perhaps you can feel that spark of life buzzing in those spaces between things too.

 

The Withdrawing Room: "Here, Women are the Hosts, Men their Guests.  The Effect is Gentility."

The Withdrawing Room: “Here, Women are the Hosts, Men their Guests. The Effect is Gentility.”


“Our new dialogue is In and Out, between the soul and its alignment with something greater, outside ourselves; a dialogue that will make what we imagine three-dimensional enough to stand up on its own.”  Dennis Severs


"'China Blue' is an imaginary oriental city that sits high upon the rocks, crags and cliffs overlooking the China Sea."  The mantelpiece of the first floor bedroom

“‘China Blue’ is an imaginary oriental city that sits high upon the rocks, crags and cliffs overlooking the China Sea.” The mantelpiece of the first floor bedroom

 

Here is an informative profile on the house at 18 Folgate Street and Dennis Severs from 1997:

Further Viewing (part 2 and part 3)

 

Hard Times: As the narrative of the Gervais family nears its conclusion at the top floor of the house now rented out to lodgers

Hard Times: As the narrative of the Gervais family nears its conclusion at the top floor of the house now rented out to lodgers

 

Visits to the Dennis Severs House must be made in advance and can be done so via its web site.

 

"Robbed of your senses by sophistication and spoiled with good taste, bad taste has exposed you as inadequate in the face of the real world."

“Robbed of your senses by sophistication and spoiled with good taste, bad taste has exposed you as inadequate in the face of the real world.”

 

I am definitely planning a return visit to the Dennis Severs House later this year when the days are short so I can experience the house when it is dark outside.  I think that will be totally next level and I am very much looking forward to that!  I am also just over halfway through reading Dennis Severs’ book 18 Folgate Street, which is a fascinating read, and I feel this is definitely going to enrich my next viewing experience at the house later this year.

Madge the cat currently in residence at 18 Folgate Street who I met last Monday!  Photo from Twitter @18FolgateStreet

Madge the cat currently in residence at 18 Folgate Street who I met last Monday! Photo from Twitter @18FolgateStreet

 

Photography is not allowed inside the house so I had to hunt images to include in my post.

Photo Credits:

1. houseandgarden.co.uk

2. spitalfieldslife.com  (this is also a wonderful article about the animals that have lived at the house)

3. coolplaces.co.uk

4. odditiesoflondon.blogspot.co.uk

5. 101 londonmuseums.com  

6. londontown.com

7. labkultur.tv

8. 101londonmuseums.com

9. Roelaf Bakker

All of the quotes used throughout the post can be found in Dennis Severs book 18 Folgate Street 

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2 thoughts on “18 Folgate Street, Dennis Severs House and its Little Instruments

  1. Hello, just a couple of quick points, my blog is 101londonmuseums.com and the photos I used were supplied by the museum, so they’re not my copyright.

    Really interesting, it’s a great museum (if we can even call it that).
    N

    Like

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