A Still Life Drama… Whatever That Means

A Still Life Drama… Whatever That Means

The Problem with Monday Evenings

On our most recent trip to the UK, we found ourselves with odd chunks of time to fill in London. Sunday evening, Monday evening, and Tuesday morning. American Airlines took care of Tuesday morning by changing our 2:25 pm flight to an 11:00 am flight. On Sunday evening, we rode the London Eye. Monday evening turned out to be a bit more problematic.

You see, we were going to the Warner Brother Studio Tour Harry Potter experience in Leavesden on Monday, and estimated our return to London at about 4:30 pm. Most museums close at 5:00 or 5:30, and by the time we rode the tube to get there, we would have very little time to actually see anything. I was very excited when I found out that Dennis Severs house was open on Monday evenings, and booked a reservation.

dennis-severs-house-exterior london

 

About Dennis Severs’ House

If you haven’t heard of Dennis Severs House, I will try to explain in as straightforward, unbiased manner as possible.

The house is (according to its creator, Dennis Severs) a “still-life drama” – an imagination of what life would have been like inside for a family of Huguenot silk weavers. Mr. Severs recreated the rooms of the house as a time capsule in the style of former centuries, adding components that make the rooms appear lived-in, as if the inhabitants of the house have just stepped out a few minutes before you arrived.

There is no gift shop, and there are only a few rules.

  1. Do not touch anything in the house
  2. Turn off your cell phone
  3. Do not talk, to yourself or to others.  You must complete the tour in silence.

Rule #3 proved somewhat more difficult than I would have expected, because I kept wanting to ask WHY?  First and foremost, why can’t we talk? But also, why is each room so different from the one before?  Why did Severs choose these time periods?  Why Huguenots? Why silk weavers?  Why, why, why?

That being said, I did manage to hold my tongue for the entirety of the tour, save one barely audible whisper to my daughter when we got close to the end to see if her thoughts were tracking with mine. More on that later. Here’s how the tour went down.

Just before entering, we received instructions about The Rules.  We were warned that candlelight was the only illumination in the house.  Thankfully, it was early in the evening, and some additional light entered in through the windows.

The Cellar

We entered the house and were directed to the cellar.  There we found a dark room with a crater in the ground and an explanation about the Spitalfields area, which was named for St Mary Spital, established in 1197 to treat lepers. (Notice the similarity to the word hospital?)

dennis-severs-house-cellar london

I had no background knowledge on the area when we visited, but in trying to gain a better understanding of the house after our visit, I read up on it. In doing so, I learned that Spitalfields was historically associated with Huguenot refugees from 1685 onward, and that many of the refugees were silk weavers by trade. They settled in the Spitalfields area (then outside London) to avoid the restrictive legislation of the City of London guilds.

The Kitchen

Our next stop was the kitchen. It was rustic and cozy… a nice change from the dankness of the leprosy crater next door.

dennis-severs-house-kitchen london

 

The Eating Parlour

Back upstairs we went to the ground floor. We were motioned away from one room (the grand finale, as it turns out) and directed to the other. It was the “Eating Parlour,” which according to the house’s web site, is in the Baroque period, and a study in contrasts.

dennis-severs-house-eating parlour london

Notice the bright white objects and how they contrast with the darker colors of the room? It is supposed to signify politics in the era following the English Civil War – Catholic or Protestant, Whig or Tory – King George or King James, etc. A note in the room alluded to the fact that the next generation, located upstairs, lived more extravagantly.

Sadly, this detail went right over my head. As an American, I haven’t learned enough about the English Civil War to pick up on these nuances or understand the significance in the time period. However, it was a lovely room, and I enjoyed the sounds and smells that made it so realistic.

When we finished looking around the Eating Parlour, a guide motioned us upstairs. A huge multi-tiered display of fruit stood on the landing. According to the house’s web site, we were entering the Georgian era, and their placement on what English call the first floor (we Americans would call it the second floor) is symbolic of being more noble and refined. Everything seemed delicate and expensive. We even skirted carefully around the fruit display for fear of knocking it over.

The Smoking Room

The first room on this floor was the Smoking Room. Essentially, it was the Man Cave of that era, symbolized quite well by the William Hogarth painting on the wall “A Midnight Modern Conversation”:

rsz_william_hogarth_-_a_midnight_modern_conversation at dennis severs house london

We failed to pay much attention to the painting until we read a note on the table. It told us that the room replicated the one in the painting, complete with overturned chair.

dennis-severs-house-room-with-painting london

This room, according to the web site, symbolizes the practical disadvantages of all-male extremes. In this room (and all the others), there is a great amount of attention to detail.

dennis-severs-house-details london

 

The Withdrawing Room

Moving on, we entered the Withdrawing Room.

dennis severs house withdrawing room london

In contrast to the Man Cave next door, this room contains a female presence. Evidence of etiquette and gentility abounds.

Up once more we climbed the stairs. We entered the more intimate areas of the house – the bedrooms. According to the web site, this is the meaning behind the bedrooms:

Now “I think” should develop into “I feel”, and the colours in the Chamber and Boudoir are the pastel hues of sea and sky – to lift the imagination and inspire it on. So intimate – femininity, family, children’s toys and humour – as well as evidence of ‘a passion for’ – ephemera, oriental porcelain and flowers. The idea being to warm cold Reason so that you might look down on the same primitive and brutal world from which you once rose to see it as ‘picturesque’. In doing so you enter the back door to the romantic age from 1780 – 1837.

They were lovely rooms, and I especially enjoyed looking at the woman’s vanity table. But I didn’t get any deeper meaning from it, and this is where I started becoming frustrated. All the way through the house we had seen notes that were telling us to look deeper, to find the connections, to experience the setting before us, etc. I was beginning to feel that I must have missed something because I didn’t see much of a deeper meaning, regardless of how well done the rooms were.

The Upper Floor

That nagging sense of confusion exploded into a complete sense of bewilderment when we went to the uppermost floor. Hanging in the stairwell area were multiple lines of laundry hanging to dry. The paint on the walls was chipped and peeling.

rsz_dennis_severs_house_top_floor_laundry london

Shabbiness and squalor continued into the final room.  A huge bed dominated one side of the room, its once luxurious velvet curtains frayed and faded, its covers rumpled and unkempt. Beside it was a threadbare chair with a lumpy cushion seat.

dennis-severs-house-dickens-room-london

In one corner of the room opposite the bed was a desk, quill pens, books and papers. Forever in love with books and papers and writing instruments, I felt a great attraction to that corner of the room. I found the rest of it, however, revolting, and half expected a rat to scurry across the floor at any moment.

rsz_dennis_severs_house-dickens-room desk london

What you can’t see in this photo is a note implying that you are standing in Ebenezer Scrooge’s room from A Christmas Carol. That totally blew my mind, but not in a good way. I was (sort of) buying into the whole presumption that this was the house of 17th/18th century Huguenot silk weavers. So what does Dickens have to do with that? If you know, please clue me in. If you’re as confused as I am, this is what the web site says:

However, on the Top Floor, now stripped of any prettiness and filled with lodgers, what good are Reason and Romance on their own? You are 100 years old; you are wise. And with harder times and the Spitalfields silk trade sweating towards its collapse – a visitor joins with an age to reach more deeply – through sentiment to the Soul. A sense of angst is necessary to understanding the house’s next generation of Early-Victorian reformers.

The Back Parlour

Having completed that room, it was time to journey back to the ground floor and enter the grand finale room. It is the back parlour, decked out in regalia to signify the beginning of the Victorian era.

dennis severs house back parlour london

I was so thankful not to end the tour on the creepy upstairs derelict room! Once we finished looking around in the back parlour, we stepped out onto the London street, looked at each other, and said, “What the heck WAS that?” before bursting out in laughter.

So, Should You Go?

Here’s my take. If you enjoy historical reenactment and fantasize about how cool it would be to go back in time, you would probably enjoy touring this house. If you hated literature classes that had you analyze the writings of an author and presume to know why he chose to say that the bird in the tree was a canary instead of a mockingbird – and what deeper, philosophical meaning that choice implied – you should probably pass on seeing this place.

Me? I’m somewhere in the middle of those two camps. I certainly appreciate the attention to detail and the thoroughness of the scenes. However, I resented the implication that if I didn’t get all of the connections, I was (as the Brits say) thick.

I think there should have been some more background information provided prior to the tour.  It would have been especially helpful for the non-British who don’t know about Huguenot refugees, the silk trade, or the English Civil War.

Your mileage, of course, may vary. If you’ve been to Dennis Severs’ house, please let me know what you thought of it by commenting below!

Dennis Severs House is located at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London, E1 6BX. Telephone:+44 (0) 20 7247 4013. The house holds tours at various times on selected days of the week.  Consult the web site or call when planning your visit.  

10 Replies to “A Still Life Drama… Whatever That Means”

  1. I need to put this on my list for my next trip to the UK. Looks like a really interesting historic house to explore; I love your photos!

  2. I love this! I live in the UK and had no idea this place existed. I really enjoy places which are frozen in time like this. So brilliant for bringing history to life. I need to visit one day and see Dennis Severs house for myself. Although I do struggle to do anything in silence lol.

  3. Oh I love visiting places like this. But yes as you say, it’s easy to feel a bit left out when you don’t know the full story! Sounds like a quirky tour – just as well one of the rules wasn’t ‘no pictures’ 😉

  4. I’ve definitely never heard of this place, but it looks awesome. Your photos are great and really captured the essence of the house. I’ll keep this in mind if I ever make my way to the UK.

  5. I have never even heard of this place!! I can tell you it would be my favorite attraction though. No cell phones and no talking – it would be like a mini vacation on my travels. I really like these photos – they truly do say 1000 words.

  6. Ah, spots like these are my favorite tourist attractions! A little weird, a little off the beaten path, and a lot interesting.

  7. I have lived in London for a while and I have never heard of this place before. It seems interesting, but strange indeed haha. I can imagine that it’s really annoying to be quiet all the time when you have questions, but I also think I kind of like the fact that everyone needed to be and was quiet.

  8. Oh, how interesting. I live in the UK and been to London more times than I can remember, but never heard of this place. It looks interesting and would love to check it out. A bit strange but definitely got my attention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *