“Look at this,” I whispered, guiltily. By speaking, I was already breaking the rules.
Fresh bread lay on a board, a slice appearing to have just been cut. Crumbs still lingered on the wood, as if someone had grabbed a snack and run off. The food in the cellar kitchen of this museum was real, and I wanted my spouse to see what I saw.
Only I wasn’t allowed to talk, and she dutifully “Shhh”ed me.
Chief among a number of rules for touring Dennis Severs’ House in London is a vow of silence.
On this short jaunt to London, I visited the Tate Modern and took in a couple of West End shows. But I wanted to experience something a little more unusual, a little less touristy. What I found was a time capsule preserving a look into London’s history as well as into the mind of an eccentric collector who left his mark on his corner of the city.
An American-born Anglophile, Dennis Severs moved to London in the 1960s and led horse-drawn carriage tours for a living. In 1979, he purchased a rundown Georgian townhouse on Folgate Street in Spitalfields, an old weaving district that had been Jack the Ripper’s stamping ground. It was the perfect canvas for the fruits of Severs’ most passionate hobby.
Severs would scour markets for Georgian and Victorian memorabilia and antiques, and quickly pieced together an astounding collection of furniture, fixtures, clothing and artwork.
As he settled into his new home, he would sleep in each of the house’s 10 rooms, “so that I might arouse my intuition in the quest for each room’s soul,” he said, according to his obituary in the Guardian. (Severs died in 2000 at age 51.)
Modern-day trappings mattered little to the born-too-late Sever. He chose to live as though in an earlier time, lighting the house by candle and fireplace, and using a chamber pot instead of a bathroom.
He decorated each of the rooms with the ephemera of a particular era. The kitchen, among the first rooms one sees on a tour of the house, is meticulously styled for 1724, the year the house was built.
Only a few guests are allowed to enter the house at a time, so the experience is nearly private and assuredly quiet.
Journey through time
As my spouse and I moved through the house — upstairs to the dining room, the smoking room, the withdrawing room (antecedent to the “drawing room”) and the bedrooms — it felt like we were moving through time, ending in the early 20th century. Rooms are stuffed with ornate tables and tea settings, rumpled four-poster beds and sturdy wooden chests, notebooks and quills, bowls of fruit and hanging laundry.
Severs invented a family of Huguenot weavers, the Jervises, and it is their journey through time that offers a loose plot on the walk through their rooms.
Still, we craved some guidance as to what we were seeing, hearing, smelling and immersing ourselves in. Yet the rules were clear: no talking. And that applied to the curators who stood guard on every floor.
Instead, we listened to the house. Fireplaces crackled, floorboards creaked and recorded voices murmured just out of earshot. Steam rose from the tea in a porcelain cup in one room like a still-life come to life. In another, a cup lay smashed on the floor, as if someone had an accident and ran off. In one bedroom, a cat napped at the foot of a small bed, then awoke and approached us for a scratch behind the ears.
That cat, we learned afterward, belongs to a present-day occupant of the house, a friend of Severs who moved in after the owner died, and still lives as Severs did, with minimal electricity and no plumbing. (There is a bathroom for visitors, but the occupant prefers the chamber pot, according to curators.)
That shocking information was just one nugget we learned when we got to quiz the curators after the tour.
Guests on the “Silent Night” tour are finally allowed to speak once everyone completes their path through the house.
They are then invited to choose a room in the house to sit on the furniture and have a glass of Champagne. (Only the cat’s room was off-limits.)
Merging past with present
My partner and I cozied up by the fire in the withdrawing room, an ornate entertaining space where candy dishes were filled to the brim, and silhouettes were adhered to the windows of glamorous women in dresses puffed out with panniers.
It felt a bit wild to plop down on a wing-backed antique chair that looked like it should have been behind a velvet rope. And yet, strangely, it felt completely natural (and more comfortable than it appeared).
I roamed back through the lower-level rooms with my Champagne glass in hand, chatting with other guests, learning all about Severs’ artistic vision.
Spending time in the house, rather than just viewing it as a museum, was the closest I came to understanding Severs’ affinity for this building and its history. The experience brought the home to life, merging past with present in an eerie and beautiful mashup.
It wasn’t until I turned around in the long front hall to make my way to the front door that I noticed a little table with a relic I never expected to see in this living snapshot of London’s history.
There was a New York Yankees cap that belonged to Severs himself.
Severs once said that he always wanted to live with ghosts. At 18 Folgate Street, he is the ghost.