I have been working down the road from Dennis Severs’ House for the past 18 months. It’s funny how we often overlook the things that are on our doorsteps. My end is filled with glass offices and shiny new Shoreditch apartments. Spitalfields market spreads out in front, a strange mix of East-End cool, Vintage tat and up-and-coming art. The city rises up around the sides.
Dennis Severs’ House is nestled among the terraces at the other end of the street. It’s not a very long street and it’s quite surprising, therefore, that when you look closely at the darkened windows and step through the large black door, there’s another world in there.
I guess that’s the point.
Dennis Severs was a 20th century artist who created a house that is – according to the website – intended to evoke “the moods that dominated the period between 1724 – 1914”. Described by Severs as a “still-life drama”, visitors are meant to interact with the house (or “canvas”) rather than just standing back and having a good look. Smells, sounds, creaking floors and just-finished meals are designed to create the impression that you’ve walked into a room that someone has just left: the interaction is with your imagination.
This is the second time this week that I have found my imagination being cranked into motion.
Dennis Severs’ House is created with an imaginary 18th century family of Hugenot silk weavers in mind. They occupy the middle sections of a house that is narrowly straight from the outside and sprawling from within. Beneath their lavish and crammed drawing rooms is a dank cellar followed by a contrastingly warm kitchen; above the ornate dressing rooms and heavily curtained beds, two families are crammed onto the top level, just below the servant quarters.
Each room tells a story and, reminiscent of Pope’s “Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux” dressing table, every surface is covered in a mishmash of knick-knacks and historic mementos and things – like half-eaten strawberries – that could have been discarded a minute before. With dead ducks and bowler hats and old photos of London hung on the wall, and tables decked with candied peel or over-turned punch bowls or delicately stitched sewing boxes, it feels a little like you’re in a dolls house that isn’t just 18th century but, when you look closely, mixes history up.
There is something fascinating in looking at the simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar things from bygone eras. You can kind of feel your imagination instinctively putting people and events around them. There is also something both intimate and unnerving about wandering around someone else’s house. Normally, it’s not something you do that much.
My Dennis Severs visit came on the back of my first Punchdrunk experience last week. This was Dennis Severs on a massive scale with none of the restrictions and none of the boundaries that made Dennis Severs’ House an interesting but ultimately limited imaginative experiment. Punchdrunk doesn’t create a scene and then remind you that it’s created or ask you to be careful of it; it just drops you into one, head first.
I missed the plot in both Dennis Severs’ House and the Punchdrunk play. I didn’t even realise there was one in the former until I read the website earlier today. I don’t think it matters. The thing that I have loved most, on both occasions, is the chance to feel like I’m in another place and let my mind make sense of it. To pad out the black-and-white version of historic houses or film studios or the 1950s with the physical experience of it. To be invited to make up my own stories and let a slightly under-used imagination really have fun.