Perhaps the most magical address in London is 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields, otherwise known as Dennis Severs’ House. I wrote a piece about its Christmas display for The Times several years ago (unfortunately not now available free online), but I hope to write again about its “everyday” face soon.
In the meantime, I’ve been reading Severs’ own description of it and its (re)creation as a piece of living history, simply titled 18 Folgate Street: The Tale of A House in Spitalfields. The book is as delightfully nutty and eccentric as the house in the flesh. (Although I have to confess I’m not entirely convinced by his naive-style collages, which illustrate it.)
Yet it does explain the house very well. Indeed if I had to sum it up on one phrase it is in his definition of atmosphere as “the space between things. Severs, an American who emigrated to London to seek his natural home, created what might be called an imaginary theatre display – a whole family lives – eats, sleeps and breathes – in the house, but they’ve always just left the room before you entered – leaving a scent, a half-eaten apple, or other similar signs of their presence.
It is fascinating to read what is original in the house, and the huge job that Severs, with no income (he lived on scavenged vegetables from the nearby market, cooked in the fireplaces with broken-up pallets from the same source), during the reconstruction), took on. He describes the kitchen: “Though much of the ceiling was lying under my feet on the floor and the carcass of a dead dog had been tossed through a broken window from the street, the fabric of the room was complete. The original dresser and wooden interior was here, the sash windows with thick glazing cars, the fireplace and even the original lead plumbing and linseed white paint, all honey-brown with age.”
Upstairs, the drawing room “was a real mess. The panelling had been covered with a thin board, and then wallpapered and more recently painted a pale violet. Literally thousands of nails had to be removed and each hole filled … Â£185, four dozen candles, two borrowed tools and a kerbstone outside to employ as a sandpaper were really all I had.”
The book also makes clear how Severs saw the generational shifts in the house’s history as part of the broader trends. He was no academic scholar – perhaps impressionistic scholar is the right term – yet he was obviously well-read. So he writes of the 18th century:
“Reason is indeed taking control … instead of windows that open out from the centre – as did old casements in the seventeenth century, to get caught by wind or by fire – Reason has asked us to invent the ‘sash’ window instead. … And if floors are often so crooked that hey make four table legs wobble, then surely three legs – or ‘tripod’ will straddle. So the reasonable Georgians developed, built and bought their tripod tables.”
So in that much abused Drawing Room he is delighted to find the hearth had been moved from one side of the room to the centre of one wall – a massive job, but one that introduced symmetry, balance – indeed Reason – to the room. And he tells his readers that the term “well-heeled” is supposed to be derived from the court of Louis XIV, who liked to display his shapely legs and fine dancing style to best advantage. When still, the king would have adopted the “elegant” first stance, with the right foot forward before the left, heels touching and the toes pointing out at roughly 30 degree angles. “‘Ten minutes to two,’ Mrs Jervis will often shout to her children and servants when an important guest is being conducted up from the hall.”
Severs was very sensitive to the effects of gender, not just on behaviour, but on the spaces – the very air – of a room. So he has Mrs Edward Jervis “with her husband imagined still suffering in his bed .. pictured hand on hip, pausing with Rebecca [the cook] at the Smoking Room door to contemplate the mess left behind by last night’s revellers: ‘We should be thankful for what remains in one piece,’ we hear her say. The very idea: ten men in a single room without the company of a single woman! … all so barbaric! And so old-fashioned.’ So it is, Severs explains, that on the next floor up the two genders are brought together in a Drawing Room.
He was, however, no respecter of modern persons, complaining of many of his distinguished visitors who failed to “get” the house:
“One art critic, apparently numb to any beauty outside the frame, tidied the contents of this table into neat little piles for washing up. A famous sculptor and Royal Academian ate my still lives whenever I left the room. One of the great minds of our day smoked a clay pope only to sit staring into the fire to make the same contribution to every subject. ‘I don’t know, but I have a book at home that would tell me.'”
Severs did – by his behaviour cultivate, deliberately, a degree of notoriety for eccentricity, and being a generally difficult character. “I heard that someone who had seen me remove my socks and soak them in the wet plaster, in order to fill in and then mould into shape a missing piece of cornice, was now going around town describing No 18 as ‘restoration comedy’.”
And it must be admitted that Severs brings this eccentricity to the book. It is an essential accompaniment to the house – to be read before or after a visit – but reading it from a distance is likely to be both frustrating and bemusing. Beware – it might be a very expensive read, if it forces you to buy a plane ticket for London.