Smoking Room detail

The Charms of Time Travel: the Dennis Severs House

There is a house at 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields in London, which – if you pass it on a winter’s night – gives you a peculiar sensation of time travel.  Look in through the door and you’ll see the 18th century.  Not a fake, 21st century version but what seems like the thing itself.  Candles burn in pools of light.  A deep browny darkness gathers in the corners.  There is a half-drunk glass of wine on the table, a slice of fruit on a blue-patterned 18th century plate.  Upstairs in the bedroom a dress is strewn across the floor, a fire burns in the hearth, there are voices faintly heard and the sounds of tinkling teacups.  Look into one of the mirrors with its silvered, 18th century glass, fringed with feathers and strings of pearls, and you will see your startled, 21st century face look back at you.  This is the Dennis Severs House, the inspired creation of a young American who came to London in the 1970’s.  We all live in the Past in different ways but Dennis Severs lived there more strangely and more creatively than most of us.

His father ran a petrol station in Escondido in California.  When he was little his father took him out hunting, left him for hours in ruined towns in the American outback where he passed the time looking through the windows of abandoned houses.  When he was sixteen he saw a painting and thought, ‘That’s the light I want to live in.’ It was the light of 18th century England.  And so he came to London but this was the 1970s and the Past was deeply unfashionable.  At first he drove around in a horse and carriage, then he found the house, an 18th century weaver’s house in a dirty and unfashionable part of London, and set about bringing it back to life.  Which he did by ripping out all signs of the 20th century – the boiler, the bathroom, the electric lights.  He lived in the house by candlelight, peed into a chamber pot, inhabited the house with a family of 18th century Huguenots, called the Jarvises, who gradually took over his imagination.  His mother was dead by now and his father never came to visit.

People laughed at him – which he hated – because he was a young American who was living in the Past in such a theatrical way.  When you came to dinner there he would take you down into the basement and bolt you in in the cold, dark back room where he laid out the rules of the Game.  You were to open up your mind, feel the sights and smells of the house, let it work on your imagination.  You were not to say, ‘I could have picked up one of those a couple of years ago’ or ‘What’s the paint finish on that?’  – because if you did you would be out on your ears in ten seconds.  And then, with that unpleasantness over, he would lead you into the warmth of the kitchen where a fire burned and supper cooked and you could hear the horses and the carriages go by.  Dennis’ tours became famous.  They cost £35 a go – not cheap in the 1970’s – and he only did them in the dark of winter evenings when the magic of the house was at its height.  It was an art installation and long before such things became fashionable.

But all this is in the past now because Dennis died and the house was taken over by his successor, David Milne, who is describing all this to me in a café on the South Bank.  David is not Dennis, although he was a friend of his and is just as obsessed by the house about which he talks as if it were a living, breathing thing.  Like many people who become obsessed with the Past, it was a childhood book that got him going – Arthur Morrisons’ ‘Child of the Jago’.  (It’s remarkable how often children’s books are about time travel.)  He came to Spitalfields when he was eighteen, looking for the characters in the book, didn’t find them but found Dennis and the house instead.

David trained as a set designer so he is more meticulous in his recreations than Dennis ever was.  Dennis took you on a guided tour but kept you at a distance for fear that if you got up close you would see that the wine in the wine glass wasn’t real.  With David you can wander at will because the sights, the smells, the sounds are absolutely real.  Even the tallow in the candles is made in the 18th century manner so that they burn with a peculiarly 18th century light.  This is not accidental time travel.  David works hard at his effects – look carefully and you’ll see in some of his still-life compositions an echo of a Hogarth drawing or a Zoffany.  But, although contrived, the experience is still intensely powerful – the nearest thing to time travel that I know.  I ask him if he would ever time-travel if that were possible?  ‘Oh yes,’ he says, without a hesitation.

The house is not a museum.  It is not filled with valuable artefacts, because the point is something else – the way the objects come together, a sense of atmosphere, of light and time travel. Nonetheless its magic is much admired – the house gets a steady trail of visitors from the National Trust and English Heritage, looking to see how he gets his effects. Because as these organisations know that it is the sensation of time travel that visitors love the most.

What David Milne does is much harder than it looks – as you’ll know if you ever hear him talk on doors, the gist of which is that a closed door says not much, a door flung wide open says even less, but a door that is left ajar so that it lets out a narrow shaft of inviting light – well, that is the perfect effect.  God – it is clear – is in the details.

Meanwhile Spitalfields itself is no longer the dirty and unfashionable area that it was when Dennis first arrived.  The City is on its doorstep.  The bankers’ towers look down upon the house.  Property prices are through the roof and the pubs are packed with city boys.   But you can still sit in the house on a winter’s evening looking at the fire and feel the peculiar peace that descends upon you from knowing that you have taken time out from your own century and that you are a guest in a different one where they did things differently and for whose foibles you are not in anyway responsible.  And what could be better than that?   By Rachel Morris