Don’t be alarmed.
But there’s a small tear in the space-time continuum.
The good news is that it’s just by Liverpool Street, it’ll only set you back a tenner, and it doesn’t pose any significant risk to life and limb. It will, however, be unlike anything you’ve experienced before.
Perched on the edge of Spitalfields Market is the atmospheric Folgate Street – an almost undisturbed stretch of 18th century houses once occupied by Huguenot families (French weavers fleeing religious persecution). Take a closer look, and you’ll see that number 18, with the flicker of candlelight behind its windows and sombre gas lantern hanging over the front door, looks particularly undisturbed. And that’s because the American artist Dennis Severs bought the place up in the 70s, and, living much like its former residents, set about painstakingly restoring each of the dilapidated rooms around him to their former glory.
Now open to the public three evenings a week, the house has variously been described as ‘a still-life drama’, ‘post-materialist’, and – according to David Hockney – like one of the world’s greatest operas.
You’ll make a silent pilgrimage through ten candlelit rooms, each designed to feel as though the house’s inhabitants have just walked out, leaving their unmade beds, half-eaten bread and unfinished letters paused in time. Dennis Severs was fascinated by the ‘light’ and ‘moods’ of old paintings – the smoky haze, ticking clocks and cats lying around in the background – and this is what he’s recreated in the house: a living painting for you to step into. “Your senses are your guide”, he wrote, and besides the sumptuous period furnishings, footsteps, voices, and wafts of cooking from the kitchen commingle to create an immersive installation in its truest sense.
A visit to Dennis Severs’ House isn’t your typical mooch around a stately home, with fenced-off furniture and a tea room. To him, the art wasn’t the setting itself, but the role that you, the visitor, play by imagining the house’s residents, who you so nearly brush past in every room. His professed intention was that, as you pass from room to room – spanning two centuries in their design – your journey is not just temporal, but psychological. The basement kitchen, designed to feed basic needs, is simple and soulful; the politically tumultuous Baroque period is represented in a living room fraught with stylistic contrasts; ascending the stairs takes you onwards and upwards through the age of Reason and Enlightenment; before you ultimately progress from logic into sentiment in the Romantic-era boudoirs. You know, standard interior design stuff.
At this point, you’re either misty-eyed with the poetic romance of it all, or your eyes have rolled full circle. Which, presumably, is why the house’s motto is “You either see it, or you don’t”.
And there’s only one way to find out.
NOTE: Dennis Severs’ House is open for tours on Monday lunchtimes; Mon, Weds & Fri evenings; and Sunday daytime. Entry costs from £10, and you can book ahead HERE.
Dennis Severs’ House | 18 Folgate Street, E1 6BX
Like walking around artists’ houses? Have a peek at 575 Wandsworth Road