A Visit to Dennis Severs' House, 18 Folgate Street: Interview with Curator David Milne
The front door of 18 Folgate Street is not so much an entranceway as a wormhole into an alternative reality. When it opens inward, the eye is met at first by pitch darkness and the nose by the sweetness of aged wood. This perfectly preserved eighteenth-century Spitalfield weavers’ house on a side road off Bishopsgate is an extraordinary survival in the heart of a rapidly changing and continually ‘regenerating’ part of urban London, not far from the glass and steel of the Gherkin.
On a grey Saturday morning a couple of weeks before Christmas I lifted the shining brass knocker to interview David Milne, the curator of the house. It used to be owned by Dennis Severs, the now-deceased Californian visionary who first furnished and dressed its various rooms in a feat of unprecedented imaginative sympathy with the past, work which David continues today. Severs was a history enthusiast rather than a formal historian, a passionate autodidact who sought a closer embrace with the past than can be offered by a formal museum environment. His approach to public history was disparaged by the contemporary academic establishment, but it is now seen as pioneering, and professionals from the National Trust and other heritage organisations come to the house on a regular basis for inspiration. Unusually for an historic property, the house predominantly attracts younger visitors—David estimates that 60% of 18 Folgate Street’s traffic consists of young people. There is a very loyal local crowd, but there are some overseas visitors as well.
Though battling a cold and very busy with his hectic schedule of Christmas bookings and seasonal preparations, David could not have been a kinder or more forthcoming host and conversationalist. We went down a narrow stairway to the kitchen, sat down in front of a cheerful fire blazing in the grate, and began to talk. Occasionally pairs of curious feet could be seen stopping in front of the grille which lets in the only daylight to the cellar. This happens all the time, David noted— passersby in the midst of a hypermodern city arrested by the sight of a previous century. He himself was similarly transfixed while exploring the East End one day in search of the Old Nichol, the infamous slum subsequently replaced by the Bethnal Green/Shoreditch Boundary Estate and immortalised in Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago, though he did not become friends with Dennis Severs until a number of years later.
David explains that when Severs bought the house in the 1970s, he lived with the things that were already there (such as the original walnut bed in one of the upstairs bedrooms) instead of attempting to rid the house of every anachronism. As a result, while some rooms faithfully capture certain epochs, others are intriguing jumbles of periods and styles. For example, the eighteenth century kitchen still has the nineteenth century cooking range in the fireplace which, when it was installed, was the very latest thing. All the kitchen implements are similarly a mixture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. David provides a digression on the difficulties with which domestic servants contended in those eras. He still uses the copper pans for cooking, a time-consuming business because they blacken instantly and then have to be effortfully scrubbed clean. Using the range is also challenging, since it is difficult to gauge time and temperature. When Dennis was alive there was only an outdoors bathroom, so an electric heater—one of few concessions to modernity—would be used to warm it up, and then there would be an arctic dash into the garden, ten minutes to wash before the water (previously boiled in a kettle) got cold again, and a dash back indoors. Most of the crockery in the kitchen is nineteenth century, though there are some sympathetic additions by Dennis’ partner, the artist Simon Petit. His work can be seen elsewhere in the house, too, and cannot be distinguished —at least by this untrained eye— from authentic period ware. The contemporary passion for building up magpie collections of objects is amusingly evoked throughout the house, with interesting juxtapositions of china ornaments, including Staffordshire dogs, on the various mantelpieces.
The house is heated solely with environmentally neutral fires and lit mainly by candlelight, with the odd gas light and oil lamp. This not only gives the entire atmosphere a profound sense of mystery, but it also casts a beautiful golden patina over the various installations and makes the visitor think about how the after-dark aesthetic world of our ancestors differed to that of our own. The gulf between candle flame and electric light’s effects on our perceptions of shape, shadow and colour is vast: colours become deeper, shadows more exaggerated, and outlines less certain by candle-light.
Dennis Severs’ knack of peeling back layers of time through his furnishing of the house was a sort of imaginative cultural archeology that seems to link up with psychogeography, and at times gives certain rooms a ghostly, almost occult quality. While other heritage institutions may aim to emulate 18 Folgate Street, it is probably unique in the eerie immersion in times past that it offers the visitor. The fact that every room now has to be half-shuttered due to artificial light pollution from the massive hotel across the street adds to the uncanny undercurrent. Occasionally, left alone in a room with the evidence of the imagined occupants’ recent activities, an over-sensitive visitor can feel a presence, or see a movement out of the corner of the eye.
Who are these occupants? Dennis Severs transplanted a real family of prosperous Huguenot silk weavers —the Jervis/Gervais clan, who actually lived in a grand town house in White Row—to this address. Similarly, a poor family of Huguenot weavers, the Lackoes, whose actual address was Fournier Street, became lodgers in the dilapidated rooms at the very top of the house. David agrees with me when I remark that the project could be viewed as post-modern, but believes that Severs was not at all aware of this: his response to the house was entirely instinctual.
Just as the development of the house’s furnishings was organic, so too was its transformation into an attraction for visitors. Severs never originally planned to open the house to the public, but in the 1970s, as twenty-something artists and architects started to converge on the former Liberty of Norton Folgate, a magnate throughout its history for the unconventional, visionary and excluded (such as Culpeper, the famous herbalist), they were drawn to the house by the eccentric and creative nature of what was happening there, and it became a fulcrum for the nascent Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust. In the early days, in order to take advantage of the magical candlelight, the house only opened at night to a maximum of ten people. It was essentially a piece of theatre, David notes: recorded sound provided a murmur of distant voices, so that although visitors never saw the inhabitants, it was very easy to imagine them in the next room. Then as now, traditional guided tours were avoided in order to give visitors a more direct, unmediated experience of the various installations.
From an architectural point of view, the house is extremely interesting beyond the obvious features of any tall, narrow eighteenth century townhouse. Under the kitchen in the cellar there is a foot of space and then the bare ground, but the house has never had any issues with damp. Once a fire is started in the cellar the heat quickly permeates upwards through the wooden floors: it is astonishing to note the speed with which the fabric of a wooden house warms up. The various architectural accretions are also intriguing. The early eighteenth-century drawing room was upgraded in 1750, with later additions in the 1830s and 1850s, while the front door, door case, and stucco are all Regency. In the 1830s, endless stuccoed terraces sprang up in fashionable neighbourhoods such as Chelsea, so a well-to-do East End family like this one would put a new door, door case and windows on the front of the house in order to keep up. However, the windows in the servants’ room downstairs, which face the back, are only eighteenth century. There was no point in upgrading the back of the house, since nobody saw it.
All the textiles in the house, down to the servants’ aprons, were made by Huguenot weavers. Throughout there are reminders of this rich history, including a stunning silk frock from 1750 with pink and blue flowers on an ivory ground, which was obviously worn by a woman with a very tiny ribcage. The frock coat on display similarly appears to have belonged to an extremely slight man, from our point of view, and it is useful to be reminded of how much taller we have become through improvements in nutrition. In the kitchen cellar there is an extraordinary sleeve with almost three-dimensional embellished flowers set on black striped velvet, perfectly preserved. It must have taken forever to make, and David reminds me that such beautiful things were made only for the very rich. The black shades of the striped velvet could be made year-round but light or coloured materials could only be woven in summer, due to the winter smog, which pushed up the price of colourful clothing. (This explains why the poor could only afford to wear black, so that the later arrival of cheap printed Indian chintzes, allowing social subversion in dress, scandalised and alarmed the rich.) It was impossible to wash the silks, since the colours were only fixed with starch, with the result that they ran when wetted. The silks were not actually worn very often, only slipped on over washed linen gowns for excursions. Back then the well-to-do did not leave the house without powder, wigs, and smart clothes, and they did so to call on friends and acquaintances, or to visit the latest pop-up restaurant enterprise from a celebrity French chef. David observes mischievously that when you consider this, along wth the frequent takeaway pies from bakehouses, people have not changed that much.
Less amusingly, the flaunting of conspicuous wealth in the face of the poor is another factor that both ages increasingly have in common, as wealth disparities grow exponentially in today’s London, changes that David is well-placed to observe from his workplace. He notes grimly that we seem to be fast returning to the eighteenth century, with an explosion in the number of homeless and destitute and an acceptance of vulgar behaviour and ostentation in public places. “At least we don’t have the workhouse,” he remarks. The yawning chasm between the classes in eighteenth century London is poignantly demonstrated by the conditions in the upstairs apartments inhabited by the Lackoes. Here linens are hung up to dry beneath the ceiling plaster, which —although the house’s leaking roof has long since been repaired— is still cracked through. It, like the rest of the house’s top floor, has been judiciously left more or less as it was in order to capture the reality of poverty at the time. A spinning wheel is suspended from the ceiling, still with traces of red silk on it. Fragments of shattered brown earthenware instead of the oriental-style ceramics favoured by the Jervises lie around. David remarks that although the poor weavers ironically had a healthier diet than their landlords, heavily concentrated on oysters and mussels, they died of typhoid and cholera through drinking the water instead of alcohol. In these rooms a couple of eerily time-darkened portraits, of a man and a woman, look down at us. The subjects are not members of either family, and the impossibility of identifying them disturbs the viewer, re-opening, for a moment, the gulf between past and present that the house’s other installations so cleverly collapse.
The insistence on authenticity in all the installations and dressings is extremely impressive. When I enquire whether the food in the kitchen is real, David replies that he has no energy for fake things, but adds (when he notices me eyeing the jellies that glow on the sideboard) that they are not edible, as he has had to put an extreme amount of gelatine in them to make them hold their shape over time. Consuming one would be like eating the world’s biggest wine-gum. Similarly, the gingerbread men which are strung up over the fireplace would not hold together if they were made according to a normal recipe. Visitors, he notes, increasingly tend to get close to and smell the food when they are moving around the house, so that he now has to heavily spice and perfume it, as well as ensure that the cognac in the drawing room is real. The food displays began in Dennis Severs’ lifetime — Dennis Severs and David would prepare and eat food before openings, and the evidence of their meals would still be on the kitchen table when the visitors appeared.
This emphasis on real accoutrements does not mean, however, that the installations are lacking in fantasy and humour. The smoking room upstairs is in a state of artful uproar, a still-life re-enactment of the Hogarth print A Midnight Modern Conversation Piece that hangs on the wall. A chair and some bottles are tipped over, just as they are in the picture, and the scent of the half-pipe of tobacco that David smokes there on a regular basis in order to maintain the appropriate atmosphere hangs in the air. At Christmas there are not one but two pyramids of beautiful glace fruits, one on the landing below a glittering chandelier, the other topped by a black swan decoration. Wigs lie on windowsills as if casually tossed aside after an expedition, and the Green Man (an older survival yet) looms above an upstairs doorway. Ceramic heeled shoes made in the eighteenth century style by Simon Petit stand in front of a marble fireplace.
The olfactory aspect of the house is also remarkable. Every room has a subtly different old wood smell, each of which also changes according to the season. The fires are smokeless and no incense is burned, so apart from the half-pipe of tobacco, there is no interference from David or the rest of the staff to explain the rich range of scents and their changeability. “It’s very odd,” he comments. Some previous visitors have mistaken the scent of old wood for a musty smell, which is quite baffling: these are two very distinct odours, and there was not a trace of the latter in evidence when I was there.
The high point of a visit during the festive season is undoubtedly the Victorian room, which is decked out beautifully. A small evergreen tree glitters with ornaments, the mantelpiece is covered with exquisite china figures, and there is a large Union flag and portraits of monarchs past and present, preoccupations consistent with the nineteenth century furnishings. My personal favourite was a small nineteenth century ornament of three kittens drinking milk —embellished with the legend ‘Tea Time’— which David had found at a flea market some weeks earlier. A few years ago David made an incredible discovery of a brand-new, unopened box of nineteenth century Christmas tree ornaments at a house sale, and they have now finally come into their own. The Christmas appointments are the most popular of all, usually booked out within the first week of December, with many return visitors since the decorations and general concept are subtly different each time: David puts a lot of thought into the project every year.
When I finally emerged into the grey morning again, my head was swimming with a bewildering array of intriguing and beautiful images: heavy damask curtains, horse chestnuts on a table, cognac in glasses, a house of cards in a state of habitual collapse. Most of all, however, I noticed the sudden flattening of contours and shadows in the dull daylight, and the absence of the continual muffled bonging and susurration of a myriad antique clocks in not-quite-perfect unison. Dennis Severs’ old home may be inhabited by ghosts, as it frequently suggests, but above all, it is a house where time lives. --Isabel Taylor
Many thanks to David Milne for giving so generously of his time and expertise.