Meeting people who are never there – the Dennis Severs house

The day was overcast and the cold flat light was making me squint. I glanced up and caught sight of the modern glass buildings on Bishopsgate towering over the tiny cobbled street where I stood. On the wooden door in front of me an Egyptian style door knocker stared at me. I glance at my watch. 11:58. It was almost time.

Mick with Madge, the house cat

Soon I heard a sound from within the house I was standing by. A rattle of keys and the door opened. Mick Pedroli, the manager of the house, steps out onto the street beaming. ‘Is it your first time here?’ he asks. I nod my head, hand over money, and step from the glare of the street in the muffled, candle-lit hall. The hall clock chimes. I’m about to start an adventure.

On Sunday, I visited the Dennis Severs house. It is located 5 minutes away from London’s Liverpool Street Station and is around the corner from bustling Spitalfields market. Despite its easily accessible location most people would never realize it exists. You could easily walk past its entrance and assume it was just another house.

It is an unusual space. It’s not a gallery. It’s not a museum. You’re not there to learn. You’re not there to see anything specific. You’re there to experience.

Its creator was Dennis Severs, an artist who used his visitors’ imaginations as his canvas and who lived in the house in much the same way as its original occupants might have done in the early 18th Century. This he did for his own personal enjoyment as well as for the harvest of an atmosphere, which he then employed to provide the visitor with an extraordinary experience. To enter its door is to pass through a frame into a painting, one with a time and a life of its own.”

The house has 10 rooms, each of which transports you back to a specific moment in time. Starting in the 12th century in the cellar you are encouraged to ascend through the house, travelling through time to the early 20th century.  Although you might begin your exploration of each room by looking at individual items you soon start fall under their spell and stories start to form in your head.

I had entered a room on the 2nd floor, the Boudoir and felt like I was stepping into the bedroom of a couple in the late 18th century. My eye had been drawn to the striped pajamas slung over the edge of a chair by the crackling wood fire; a congealing half eaten boiled egg and cooling coffee on a breakfast table nearby. I had paused, feeling like I was intruding. Although I knew it wasn’t possible I had felt like the man who had surely sat there eating his breakfast had just left the room and he might return any second.

Everything is still but everything is alive. “”What! You’re still looking at ‘things’ instead of what ‘things’ are doing?” notes around the house remind you. In each unique space in the house you feel the warmth and shiver in the cold, squint in the dark or shield your eyes from the light, smell the sweet cakes or sneeze from the dust. You absorb the rooms’ characters. Each space provides you with characters and their stories. And, as you move through the house, you create a narrative through time – watching the house evolve and change in reaction to the world outside.

A little over an hour after I entered the gloom of the hall, I stepped blinking into the 21st century world. I had been on an extraordinary adventure, and all I did was walk around a house!

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