For the first time since it opened for tours forty years ago, Dennis Severs’ 18th Century house in Spitalfields, east London, has been closed to the public but, behind the scenes, a small army has been working to renew the house for reopening to visitors this summer.
From 1979 to 1999 it was lived in by Dennis Severs, who gradually recreated the rooms as a time capsule. The house reflects the life of an imaginary Huguenot family, who had lived there since it was built in 1724.
The Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life blog has reimagined the immersive tours that Dennis Severs gave when he first opened the house for guests.
Gilbert Bastian: Clock specialist
“I love the finesse of this French clock and it’s my favourite at Dennis Severs’ House. I love taking an old clock that has not been cleaned for many years and bringing it back to life as it would have been in the 18th Century.
“There are a variety of clocks in the house and they are all different – a French clock, an American clock, a lantern clock and a nice grandfather clock dating from 1720. In Dennis Severs’ House, it is as if time stood still.”
Luis Buitrago: Gardener
“In Spitalfields, the gardens are micro-climates that are shady and very sheltered. The challenge for a gardener is the lack of light, but there is scope for plants that like shade and humidity.
“Dennis Severs had an urn as the central feature, so I introduced these huge ferns. Dennis was all about drama. I am not sure how knowledgeable he was about horticulture but if he had chosen a plant, it would have been one with drama – not something you feel indiﬀerent about.”
Dan Cruickshank, Friend of Dennis Severs and Trustee
“Dennis believed you have to be open-minded and ‘innocent’ to really see the world he created, which is a powerful evocation of the past rather than an attempt at its literal recreation.
“As he said, ‘you either see it or you don’t’, and over twenty years after Dennis Severs’ death his house continues to weave its spell and remains a place where – invisible to sceptics – ghosts walk in splendid array.”
Pia Frankcom: Copper Plate Calligrapher
“Over the winter, I have been doing copper plate calligraphy for the house. A few years ago, I taught myself at home. It’s almost like meditation for me.
“This house is very diﬀerent to any other because it has so much atmosphere and is entirely authentic. Working here, I have heard stories about Dennis Severs and it has become a more personal experience for me. The more I have learned the more interesting it has grown, and it has become a great pleasure to do things for the house.”
Johannna Garrard: Fabric Specialist
“I’ve been cleaning and dressing fabrics – all the drapery, curtains, beds and pieces of costume. Many drapes had fallen down and it was often a puzzle to rehang something that had once been hung up in a haphazard fashion, yet to magnificent eﬀect.
“We looked at photos of how the rooms evolved over the decades to guide us. I was fascinated by the degree to which the house is not a museum collection but a theatre set, and we needed to be aware of that theatricality when we put things back.”
Ian Harper: Wood Grainer and Marbler
“I remember gilding ornaments for Dennis in the eighties, while he lectured me and we even discussed me painting his portrait. Recently, I wood-grained cupboards in the basement and restored the painted floor.
“Spitalfields has been consistently in my life because I keep coming back to work here. You would think there wasn’t anything left to paint after all these years, but whenever I walk down the street, people ask ‘Will you come and do something for me.'”
Jim Howett: Designer
“Dennis Severs knocked upon the door one day and said he’d just bought a house round the corner, I thought he was crazy but I helped him set it up. I made the shutters and I copied the fireplace from one in Princelet Street.
“The damp and decay in the paupers’ attic has always been a remarkable feature, and Dennis added to it with fungus retrieved from dead wood in Brompton Cemetery, and asked me to fit it into place. Over the years, I have added pieces as some have fallen away.”
David Milne: Steward
“I think I have a good understanding of what the life of a servant must have been like, except I am the servant to an imaginary family, though I am also a very taxing master because everything has to be right.
“When you live with candlelight, you learn how to use it. I like to place things together in the manner of ‘still life’ and I love the light of seventeenth century paintings – you see it everywhere in this house.”
Heloise Palin: Administrator
“With its constantly changing light, this house has a life of its own. You walk down a staircase and spot something you have never seen before, because the sun is in a diﬀerent place.
“I have been working here on my own a lot which is quite a weird experience, when there is no light or heating, especially in the middle of winter. People ask if it’s spooky or creepy but I’ve not found that. I have grown to love it.”
Wioletta Ruczynska: Cleaner
“When I first came here a year ago, I didn’t know where to start. There were cobwebs everywhere and a few centimetres of dust over everything – we had to remove that to see what was underneath.
“The house is much cleaner now and a lot of things have been repaired to bring them back to life. This is such a beautiful house that it deserves to be taken care of, so visitors can come and see how people lived hundreds of years ago. “
Joel Saxon: Actor
“It’s a magical experience, bringing the house to life as Dennis Severs intended it to be seen. I hope the tour will inspire visitors and spark their imaginations. I want them to feel we are pulling them through the picture frame and into the eighteenth century.
“For an actor, this is much more intimate than performing to an audience in a theatre because you get to look into the whites of their eyes and communicate directly. People come to be entertained and, with an audience limited to six, you get a lovely opportunity to connect with each person individually.”
Orlando Spurling: Painter and plasterer
“Over the years I have patched bits and pieces of Dennis Severs’ House. It’s finishing I do, the plastering and the painting.
“It’s lime plaster I use, I learned on the job. I fell into it 25 years ago while helping renovate a derelict house in Brushfield Street. I don’t use rollers or sprays in Georgian houses.
“I prefer old houses. I love the history and character, it makes you wonder who’s been there before you. You get a sense that people have lived there and had a life and moved on. It’s like a continuous living thing and it gives me real satisfaction to repair something to bring it more life.”