I’m standing in a bedroom that smells of cloves, oranges and lamp oil. Beside the unmade bed is a full chamber pot, and from the next room there is the rattle of china and a voice asking for ‘more tea?’ I hadn’t noticed anyone in there when I walked through earlier.
This is the home of Dennis Sever, who lived alone here from the 1970s until his death in 1999. His house is in Spitalfields, just next to Bishopsgate, the self-titled Financial Capital of Europe (though a little less brash these days).
To keep him from feeling lonely, Dennis dreamed up a family of Huguenot silk weavers as imaginary companions, and set up the house to show the life and fortunes of this family over several generations. Around the time of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne, the silk industry collapsed as printed calico from India became popular, and Severs reflected this decline by arranging some rooms as if they were part of a dank boarding house.
His house is open every Monday night for visitors to explore by candlelight. As I step inside, a man comes forward and says in a low voice: ‘Tonight you will go on a journey back to the past. Listen carefully, and believe that the people who live here left the room a few moments before you walked into it. They’ll return when you leave.’ I can hardly wait to get started, but he hasn’t finished with me. ‘And you must pay me twelve pounds’.
The house itself is creepy and somehow alive. A yellow canary dozes in a cage by the window and, in a small, trinket-filled parlour, a live black cat with gold eyes stares at me from the couch. On the way up to the top floor I duck past a line of greying nightgowns hung out to dry. The rooms up here are cold, with caved-in ceilings and walls draped in rotting fabric – the imaginary family have fallen on hard times. Old rolls of fabric are abandoned in a corner of the stairwell, orders that were never collected, the names of the customers still on the labels.
The next floor down is warmer, richer. The sweetly perfumed rooms of ladies, and a scone half eaten and glossy with red jam sits on a small china plate. There are more candles here so it’s lighter, and clock tinkles the hour. The bed is a brocaded four-poster and the white linen sheets are thrown back. Teacups rattle.
Visiting the house is a lot easier than it was when Dennis Severs was alive. He opened it just once a month, and was very hard on his visitors. If people were late, or referred to it as a museum, they weren’t admitted. If they laughed they were also thrown out, although what there is to laugh about escaped me entirely. To step into a house inhabited by almost-people from a couple of hundred years ago is intriguing, but not – for me anyway – the slightest bit funny. Dennis took a dim view of the modern world. ‘It’s a nice place to visit,’ he once said, ‘but why would you want to live there?’. Well, I wouldn’t want to live in his house. But if you need of a little respite from the frenzied commuters of Liverpool Street Station, an hour here will sort you out.
18 Folgate St, Spitalfields
www.dennissevershouse.co.uk, 020 7247 4013
Open every Monday evening (except Bank holidays), by candlelight (booking required, £12); every Sunday between 12 noon and 4pm until 31 March 2009 (£8), and at lunch time between 12 and 2pm on the Monday following the first and third Sunday of the month (£5).