Dennis Severs moved into Folgate street with a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll – and the house became his life’s work.
Born in Southern California, he grew up loving historical dramas on television and moved to London five days after graduating high school in 1967, describing it as “Love at first sight.” Ceramicist Simon Pettet came to live with Dennis Severs and contributed his work in the house in the service of Dennis’ vision. From the beginning, Dennis opened his house to visitors and hosted tours for almost twenty years.
Dennis feared his creation would be ephemeral and not survive him. Yet on his death in 1999 he sold his house to the Spitalfields Trust who maintain it and some of those who knew Dennis remain involved as trustees.
Dan Cruickshank’s appreciation of his friend Dennis Severs.
The Dennis Severs House museum, located at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields E.1. occupies a house that was built in 1724. Since 1980 this fine house has opened its doors to visitors because, thanks to Dennis Severs, it has a compelling story to tell about life in 18th and 19th century Spitalfields. The story is told through generations of one imaginary family and chronicles the changing fortunes of the house as Spitalfields moved inexorably from affluent merchants’ quarter to crowded and decayed Victorian slum.
Among stories enshrined in the tale of 18 Folgate Street is that of the silk-weaving Huguenot community that thrived in Spitalfields from the late 17th century and into the early 19th century. Still emblazoned on their former temple of 1743 on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street are the words ‘Umbra Sumus’ – we are but shadows – a reminder of the transitory and impermanent nature of worldly existence, and of the fact that, for these transcendental Calvinists, the world of the spirit was more real than the world of the flesh.
Similarly, Dennis Severs house hovers between worlds – between the tangible and the intangible, between fact and fiction, between the world of the imagination and the world of mere facts. 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, where visitors can be liberated from the banal trappings of hum-drum reality and in which the shadows of what was can be more compelling than the often vacuous bustle of daily life.
For many, once they have experienced Dennis’s house, life is never quite the same because their imaginations have been stirred and – in a way – they have been given eyes to see a little beyond the superficial surface of worldly reality.