Heightened Senses at Dennis Severs' House
This piece was originally published in The Courtauldian, the quarterly student newspaper for the Couratuld Institute of Art, London (October-November 2013).
Each issue I will be exploring a quirky gem in London’s arts and culture crown; somewhere to pique your interest and lure you away from your desks. Dennis Severs’ House will do just that.
Dennis Severs opened his house to the public in the 1970s as a living artwork expressed through the experience of visitors. The house is an installation work that plays on the imagination via stimulation of the senses. Stepping over the threshold, visitors step into the living spaces and lives of a fictive family of Huguenot silk weavers during varying times in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is no strict plot per se; instead each room immerses you in “lived” spaces.
Here, presence is felt through objects that have been seemingly abandoned mid-use. Downstairs in the dining room, napkins are strewn across plates and sherry has been sipped; below in the kitchen, a knife is poised mid-way through slicing a loaf of bread; upstairs in the Withdrawing Room a tea cup has been smashed and a white silk ribbon has been lost from a dress; while upstairs, in poorer circumstances, laundry hangs across the staircase void and a pan of chopped vegetables cooks over an open fireplace. Background noise, such as horses’ hooves on the street and the chiming of clocks situate you in the moment of the room.
It may all seem like an elaborate conceit, but each still life scene is carefully arranged before each viewing. It is the lack of stasis felt in the flickering candles, the fresh vegetables, the smell of whiskey and the stench of urine from a chamber-pot that combine to produce the feeling of “just” missing an encounter. The transience of these objects and smells refers to the fictive inhabitants’ bodily interactions with the space, and combines with the chiming clock and temporal shifts to produce an experience of interactive vanitas.
Simultaneously, there is the sense of being an unwanted guest, avoided by the occupants and left to your own devices. The house calls upon our desire to pry into others’ homes and our compulsion to pry into pictures as art historians, as each room has been imagined through a scouring of painted imagery. The Smoking Room literally enacts Hogarth’s A Midnight’s Modern Conversation (c. 1732) which hangs over the fireplace in painted reproduction. Elsewhere a melding of visual arts imagery and the physical space is seen in the subtle decoupage of prints onto the walls.
Since Severs’ death in 1999, the project has been continued by curators. This has added further layering to the experience of “presence” in the house. Signs, providing quotes by Severs and a box of his cat’s ashes are physical reminders of the history of his own occupancy. Elsewhere, typed notes to viewing, whilst elucidating, can rupture the spell. Truly immersive moments are found in spaces devoid of obtrusive signs, such as the kitchen and blue and white bedroom; and sessions with few visitors are recommended.
Overall, the conscious play between conceit and imagining; between recognisable artifice and belief is central to the pleasurable play of Dennis Severs’ House. Excursion recommended (keep an eye out for Madge, the black cat and current resident).
Dennis Severs’ House, 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields E1 6BX
Admittance prices (cash only) and times vary, so best to check the website: www.dennissevershouse.co.uk