“The late 20th century may be a fascinating place, but surely … nobody would ever want to live in it?” Dennis Severs
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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
Here is an informative profile on the house at 18 Folgate Street and Dennis Severs from 1997:
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.
Photography is not allowed inside the house so I had to hunt images to include in my post.
2. spitalfieldslife.com (this is also a wonderful article about the animals that have lived at the house)
All of the quotes used throughout the post can be found in Dennis Severs book 18 Folgate Street