I first heard about Dennis Severs’ House, at 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields, London, when I was in the US, from Cassandra, the shoemaker and artist I collaborated with on The needle is always at hand, who had heard of it and suggested I visit.
On my return to the UK I planned a visit for my birthday, only to miss it as I had flu…
A year and a half later and I have finally made that trip! The bonus being that the house had its Christmas instillation up and having managed to miss three Christmas parties in the last week it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get in the Christmas spirit.
The house guide met us at the door and set the context of the house, we are entering an 18th century house, the owners are out and we will not see them, but we might hear them and we will feel their presence. We are to be silent throughout out visit, we are not to take pictures and must not touch anything
Oh and the house is only lit by candles, so you set fire to yourself at your own risk
The silence bit appeared to be the hardest ask for most visitors, people do find it very hard not to contextualize what they are experiencing verbally, without delay or consideration for other visitors. I blame the instant culture we have created. It does effect you experience of the house, the chatter brakes the spell. When the silence was observed, with just the winter sniffles, the sound of shoes on old wooden floors and the occasional wobble of the furniture it worked.
But as a quote in the house states:
“Forgive the shallow, who must chatter, silence brings to the fore deeper sensation with which many are both unequalled and ill at ease.
They fear a loss of control; they talk”
In relation to my research for The Fashion of John Keats Life and Death, I found the following quote in the drawing room:
“The drawing room takes it’s hint at order from the construction of the human body: Polarised to balance from its spine – its carefully placed chimneypiece…
By standing at the centre of the room all thing might be seen, and felt”
The experience is very unlike that of visiting a National Trust house, everything is on show here, clutter, mess, dust, dirt, real life, it is real and is also not real
“However rich anything added or subtracted can only result in loss”
The small stuff makes it, items in the corners, how items overlap and overlay, I fell in love with a pin board in the front room, which will define the look of my research boards/ books for The Fashion of John Keats Life and Death
There is lots of food, I have a thing about fake food, I don’t really like it, I liked the jellies wobbling in the kitchen when the trains passed underneath, I liked the stacks of dirty dishes and the Christmas smell of real foods like oranges with cloves but the fake “museum food” did nothing for me.
The experience is a multisensory one
“See it, smell it, hear it now, merge with all three sensations…and your there”
It is often compared to walking into a painted and one room is themed around bringing the Hogarth on the wall to life in the room, the senses are key in this
In the house sight, sound and smell is powerful in the moment when it I hits you and for that moment your really have it, but…all this but without being about to touch…
While in the living room, I stood on something, I froze trying to work out what to do, I decided to pick the item up, it turned out to be a small toy mouse. Now what? I decided to put it back on the floor near to where I had found it, for me this defined the loss of power through loss of touch in the house. I was lost as to how to react, I felt like a spy, a peeking tom, someone who was not supposed to be here and could not risk leaving any trace of their visit, again very unlike the modern museum experience.
“What! You’re looking at things instead of what things are doing?”
Walking round you Stumbled on your reflection in beautiful mirrors while feasting your eyes on all of these visual delights, some visitors move on quickly not wanting to break the experience, others linger trying to understand themselves in the context of the house, as I did, I’m pleased I was wearing a hat, its seamed more in keeping
In relation to costume, nearly every room had an item of dress in it, draped over, hanging down, out to dry – making us move around. Some clearly old, some looked like replicas, but which ever, I so wanted to touch and explore with my hands, more than I do in a museum.
The Christmas instillation was perfect for my needs, decorated tree; the paper chains made from old newspapers and a recreated Dickens Christmas Carol in the attic bedroom was wonderful,
The fire in the fireplace curated its own performance crackling and splitting away at will.
And as I was spat back out into I found myself in the prefect Christmas mood
Merry Christmas all x