I have a friend who is, for all intents and purposes, shipwrecked on a faraway island. Thirteen years ago she went into hospital for routine ear surgery. The procedure went delicately and quietly wrong, and no one suspected a thing until she collapsed in a plane. It transpired her brain was attempting to push itself out of her ears, and it’s kind of a brilliant wonder she’s still around. Until the pressure, or the balance, or whatever it is that has gone so wrong is corrected, my friend Dianna has sworn off airplanes, lest her insides awkwardly insist on becoming her outsides.
Trapped in Tasmania like a princess up a turret, the only thing separating her from the geographical end of the world is sea. Having been told she’s absolutely not allowed to press the red button all she can think about is pressing the red button, and so she concocted a plan as a way of sating her wanderlust: she would send me to wherever it was she wanted to go, as her proxy.
And so she sent me to Dennis Severs’ House, 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields. Severs was an artist who lived in this house in the East End in much the same way as the original occupants might have done in the 18th century. He bequeathed the house to the Spitalfields Trust shortly before his death in 1999, and now the ten time-capsuled rooms are open to the public, leaky roof, drafty floorboards and all. As the literature I was handed on my way out put it, “This he did for his own personal enjoyment, as well as for the harvest of an atmosphere which he then employed to provide the visitor with an extraordinary experience.” It was his life’s work, curating this museum, only it isn’t a museum at all: it is a house, and it feels lived in. In fact its occupants are just around the corner, always a couple of steps ahead of you: coughing, laughing, reminding someone called Rebecca that they’ll need something – a muffled word – for the morning.
“The game is that you interrupt a family of Huguenot silk-weavers named Jervis who, though can sometimes be heard, seem always to be just out of sight.”
Make no mistake:
In this House it is not what you see, but what you have just missed and are being asked to imagine.
As I turned into Folgate Street a rat the size of Albania dragged itself heavily over my boot, before running off to tip over a bin with its head. Given how statistically close Londoners are to rats it may come as some surprise that this is the first one I have ever met personally. I couldn’t have been more in the mood for poking around an old Georgian home, which would remind me at every step with a small ceramic mouse-shaped paperweight how close quartered we really are.
At Number 18 I loitered awkwardly by the black door under the gas lamp, unsure of what the protocol was or even where the doorbell might be if there was one, and I wasn’t ballsy enough to use the iron doorknocker which appeared to hang like alien jewellery from the ears of a young Egyptian. I was still shaken by the incident with the beige Beast of Folgate so was unprepared when the door swung open and a man in black suit, Brylcreem and cloister whisper informed me that should I back up on a candle I would catch on fire and the price was twelve pounds. Apparently this meant the tour had begun, and I gave him the money I’d been told to have at the ready, on account of the hallway being about as well-lit as the inside of a cow. It was ridiculously dark, much darker than the street outside, though by the time I passed through it on my way out an hour later my eyes had adjusted to the candlelight and the night street was practically fluorescent.
The man in the hair cream directed me down a creaking set of stairs to the basement of the house. There were loud Americans in the kitchen so I ducked into a pitch-black room to the left, where I could just make out the shapes of things I should avoid stepping on or running into, and in the centre of the room beside a flickering candle was a single sheet of barely illuminated paper. With the help of an iPhone flashlight app (Mr Severs, I am terrible and blind and sorry) I read a short history of Spitalfields, with its lepers and spittle, and a further note that the Jervis family hope to give you not antiques or museum pieces, but life. Aut Visum Aut Non!: You either see it or you don’t.
In the kitchen I could hear the clang of church bells, a soundtrack to a London life piped in through hidden speakers. The ceiling was roughly an inch lower than my head, and I felt like a gangly ape dragging my knuckles across the cold stone floor, a feeling not remotely helped by the spindly chairs that visibly shuddered when I stood near them. The room was cluttered with endless decorative China. A wind up key hung on a hook by the clock, and by the dirty dishes in the sink crocheted curtains drooped limply over a window that looked out onto a brick wall. The tiles were adorned with painted blue windmills, children, dogs, flowers, boats and the kind of rabbits whose vacant cartoon faces appear in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. By an open recipe book was a loaf of freshly cut bread, the knife still stuck in, like a half-finished murder. There were Eccles cakes, macaroons and scones, with the glistening jam and whipped cream squirting out the sides. Run of the mill bakery staples they may be, but in the low light and in such quantity they were the kind of wondrous foodstuffs you envision when reading a book by Roald Dahl on an empty stomach.
Every object in the House should be seen as part of an ARRANGEMENT, each of which tells a story;
to pick up an Object in a shop is a risk;
in a museum it is impossible;
in a Private House particularly this one, it is simply insensitive, numb to Mr Severs’ medium:
STILL LIFE DRAMA
In a room upstairs were the remains of after-dinner drinks: a picture of upper class debauchery, of the kind of mess made by people who would never have to clean it up. It smelled of wine cork, and there was pomegranate blood and black port staining the tablecloth next to half-drunk tipples and toppled glasses. Four pipes rested against them as if their smokers were to return at any moment. A pair of spectacles were placed upon an open book as a marker, as if the room’s occupants had pulled it off the shelf to settle an argument (I have seen similar ones in which the dictionary gets hurled over the verandah and remains nestled in a bush ‘til morning). Hairpieces were flung haphazardly over the backs of chairs and hanging from coat hooks. But it was only when I took a step back and looked at the whole picture that I realised what I was in the middle of. And lo, a sign I hadn’t noticed until I was on my way out: You have just stumbled into the aftermath of the scene by W. Hogarth that hangs above the fire. Within it, you stand Here. See it? Smell it? Hear it? Now, merge with all three sensations and you’re… there.
Up the stairs I passed a five-tiered filigree cake stand on the landing, bearing fruit jellies, silver sugar-coated almonds, and a note to Sophie in inky quill text: Do Not Touch. A pervading smell of candlewax and cinnamon infused the house, but it was strongest in the bedroom where the candlelight flickered through a bottle of oak-red Oleum Copaiba, a resin from South American trees used in the treatment of stomach ulcers in the early 17th century. Nosing through the contents of the bell jars, the reminders of social engagements propped up behind dried flowers on the mantel (Lunch with Mrs Lambert, 11am in Covent Garden) I was once again shouted at by the omnipresent Mr Severs:
Getting the picture? What! You’re still looking at “things” instead of what “things” are doing.
In the Drawing Room a house of cards was erected on a small table, hidden behind a high-backed chair as if done in secret by a bored child. The King of Hearts and the Queen of Diamonds lay face up on the wooden floor, a smashed teacup crackled in the fire. Sheet music was piled up on a chair by the open door, opened to a song called O’ Poor Mr Spiggs, which is about some poor bastard’s wife trying to top herself out of spite so obviously I scribbled it down wholesale:
Mrs Spiggs gave parties to Tea and to Dinner
And played Guinea Whist though she never was a Winner
Poor Mr Spriggs!
She lov’d Silver Muslin, French lace and rich stuffs
Pilisses and Tippets and Chin-chilli Muffs
And some say she lov’d Captain Brown of the Buffs
Poor Mr Spiggs!
Mr Spiggs and his wife fell out one night
And she vow’d she drown herself out of mere spite
To poor Mr Spiggs!
She ran to the river but when she walk’d in
Her courage grew cold as the wave touch’d her chin
And drowning herself she thought was a sin
Poor Mr Spiggs!
A fisherman saw her and thought she’d be wet
So he pull’d Sally out by a cast of his net
Poor Mr Spiggs!
Took her home half drowned to her anxious dear,
Who cried, when he saw she was looking so queer
“Pray sir why the devil do you interfere with Poor Mrs Spiggs!”
O, Poor Mr Spiggs!
In another bedroom, the faces in the portraits are barely visible in the light, much like my own face in the dusty mirrors, the silver backing decomposing behind the glass. All the faces mean something and add to the story. You endow them with personalities, good ones and bad, and wonder what they thought of the people in the other portraits downstairs. The lady in her so-called Withdrawing Room. Was she tired of her red-nosed husband, or was it his booze-addled mates who’d argue for hours in a smoke-filled room? Who was she avoiding? And why didn’t she have soldiers with her runny boiled egg?
WHAT? You still haven’t worked out that the face above you is central to everything around you?
Is there no fiction freed from fact?
A bonnet on the chair, a chamberpot full of piss.
As you head upstairs to the servants’ quarters the temperature drops, and your head grazes the bloomers drying on a washing line strung up diagonally across the stairwell. Above the workers’ half-eaten dinner, a far less fancy affair than the edible delights witnessed downstairs, hangs a notice from the Mistress saying when the nightsoil is to be emptied, and that there are to be no visitors, nor running and stamping. Beside it a newspaper cut-out of a cartoon comparison of “INDUSTRY AND IDLENESS” is nailed to the wall, next to another clipping of a headline reading THE SLAVE. Unhappiness in the ranks, perhaps? While downstairs they may have crocheted curtains and frilly decorations up the wazoo, up here they’ve made do with decorations fashioned from a newspaper: doilies and frilly trimmings like cut-out people chains.
I felt like I was going back in time by going up the stairs. On a lectern sat an A4-sized history of the evening we were supposed to be in the middle of: The King is Dead. Twilight, the longest day of 1837. The succession of the eighteen-year-old Victoria to the throne. But wasn’t that a celebration of her Golden Jubilee I saw framed downstairs only ten minutes ago? Each room is not of the same time: they are time capsules within a time capsule.
On the way out I noticed three New York Yankees caps resting on a small table next to some postcards, probably belonging to the same tourists who own the leather jackets in the hall. A bum note, sure, but it did help snap me back, feel the weight of my forgotten phone in my pocket, and realise what a strange and unique place it was that I was standing in.
My plan was to go to the Ten Bells and have a pint while I wrote this down, overlooked by Christchurch, the most formidable piece of architecture I’ve ever eaten a cheese sandwich on, not to mention the pub itself, last drinking hole of several doomed prostitutes. But after seeing all those half-drunk teas, all I wanted to do was go home into the warmth of my own “Withdrawing Room” and half-drink one of my own.
It was so much like visiting someone’s house, hopping awkwardly from foot to foot in a room on your own. It was like an extended version of that bit right after they’ve said “Make yourself at home,” and you squint in the dim trying to make out the books on their shelves. I even got annoyed at the dark when I couldn’t properly see a Punch cartoon. I’d do the same in your house, but I’d probably be able to find the lightswitch.
When I returned home to my flat, which smells of microwaved porridge, I wondered what someone might make of me. Piecing together a life out of stuff. Looking at the in-between, at people not here. Like a detective in a crime scene, the evidence being a house of cards, the Queen and King face up on the floor, a shattered teacup and the sheet music for the song, O’ Poor Mr Spiggs. Only in my house it would be the strange black fluff from nowhere that always coats my bathroom sink, a dozen unwashed mugs and the endless array of pants that obscure the bedroom floor.
What I like about Dennis Severs’ House is that someone is holding onto the idea of The Past. And yes, it may be some batty Californian Anglophile whose helpful pointers have a tendency to be almost offensively patronising, but because of him we can pay twelve quid and visit a Past – not your own, but someone’s – and perhaps it’s fictional but it exists and it lives in a house on Folgate Street. The engineers behind The Clock of the Long Now are holding onto and nurturing an idea of The Future simply by creating a machine that will tell the time for the next ten thousand years. If there is no Future then why bother? They even installed a cuckoo to pop out at the turn of the millennium: we’ve missed it this go round but they’re betting on someone being there to see it for the next ten. Like the makers of the Clock holding on to an idea of the Future, or like Googlemail holding onto an idea of my life, or like the famous Voyager Golden Record holding onto an idea of us humans: Severs has held onto a Past. Someone’s looking after it. And that’s kind of an excellent thing.