Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Different Realities

Hot. Waiting for the house to open. Click to enlarge.

Sunday afternoon. 30° C . We made our way through the crowds in Spitalfields, a part of the East End which was settled by the Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France in the 17th century. In recent years it has become deeply trendy, with art galleries, winebars and glass high rise office blocks rubbing shoulders with rows of Georgian houses which are now priced out of reach of most of the original inhabitants. I view the area with some suspicion now because of its yuppification, but there was no denying its sweltering, teeming liveliness.

I was with my sister, the organiser of our outing. She lives outside London but is often more tuned in than I am to happenings in the capital and she had found out about Dennis Severs’ House.

It is difficult to know how to describe it. In the words of
the website (which is really worth a look) the house in Folgate Street, built in 1724, is:

… a time capsule .. sometimes opened up. Its creator Dennis Severs, an artist who used his visitor’s imagination as a canvas and who lived in the house in the same way as its original occupants might have done in the early 18th century.

The house is set out as a series of “tableaux vivants” as the home of a family of Huguenot weavers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with a soundtrack of sounds of the period such as horses hooves, voices, bells. Smells of cooking wafting through the rooms.

There are no tours as such, the visitor is simply directed to start in the basement and end at the attic. Speech louder than a whisper is forbidden, and visitors are asked to give focus and concentration to the experience.

The house is crammed with period artefacts . There were open fires in several of the rooms, even in Sunday’s heat, but strangely the indoor temperature was not too uncomfortable. Candles supplemented the light coming through the windows. A black cat was ensconced comfortably on a window seat in one of the bedrooms, and looked at us curiously as we approached. In the dining room, a half eaten apple had been left on one of the plates at the table and a man’s wig hung on one of the chairs. Unfinished cups of coffee too. A place frozen in time.

There was just too much to see and hear, too much detail to absorb. Nonetheless the experience was a haunting one.

We re-emerged into the glare of the afternoon sun, back to the world of ipods and wifis. Sitting in the shade outside a coffee shop at the foot of one of the glass towers we talked about the house and then started to catch up with the minutiae of each other's lives – jobs, friends, plans. We get on well, my sister and I, and it was good to see her again.

Later I came across these words on the website.

Take it from Mr. Severs, a bystander, that when you are under the spell of your own time you are as interesting to watch as were those before; it is always the same plot: Soul - Soul. For him it was your humanity in response to the house that adds life to it and makes tending it so worthwhile.

"Under the spell of your own time". My mind has been hovering around that phrase since Sunday evening. I think I know what I understand by it, but that's perhaps for another post.


Blogger Stray said...

Ah ... good memories. I have been to the house, and I lived for a few years on Quaker Street just around the corner.

I share your concern over the 'progress' being made in Spitalfields, most alarming was the destruction of half the market for that hideous office building, and then the closure of the haunting bishopsgate goods yard for the tube extension.

The Bagel Bakery seems to be the only touchstone. Oh, and the regular sightings of Gilbert and George, ever the same.

If you haven't read it, you might like to check out Rodinsky's Room, as the house features a little in the story, and certainly "under the spell of your own time" is a theme that winds through it, well, as I understand that phrase it does.

I'm wondering now whether I share your interpretation, but I shall have to wait until you disclose your own perception of it to find out ...

Great post, thanks for the memories ...

9:18 am  
Blogger Jean said...

"under the spell of your own time" is wonderful. I've never visited the house - must make sure I do so before I move away from London.

9:57 am  
Blogger rdl said...

Very interesting!

2:17 pm  
Blogger g said...

you either see it or you don't.

this sounds like an ambitious project. and mix that with a visit with your sister. your senses must have been reeling.

3:42 pm  
Blogger Pam in Tucson said...

Fascinating! I'll try to visit next time I go home. "... you are as interesting to watch as those before ...": That's causing me some deep reflection. Glad you have such a good relationship with your sister. It's a precious thing.

7:59 pm  
Blogger herhimnbryn said...

Mary, your talent with words takes me into the house with you. I think I too have an view of "under the spell of your own time". However, I look forward to your post about it!
Being only 'allowed' to speak in whispers can only have added to the atmosphere, that and the sounds of horses hooves and half eaten apples etc.
When I came out of St Fagins In Wales the shock of the 21st Century almost knocked me sideways!
Thankyou for a evocative post.

11:42 pm  
Blogger chuck said...



6:06 am  
Blogger chuck said...

"tableaux vivants": sounds 'cool'...

6:13 am  
Blogger LJ said...


4:53 pm  
Blogger Sonia said...

I thank you so very much for your nice words about my family's photograph and myself photo, too.
I delayed a little to post portraits and personal photos of me and my family on my blog. In the main I dislike photos of myself and also I think that I am not photogenic. Lol! Also I wanting to mantain some anonymity, because I have a little fear of Internet World. Like you said I also feel fear and shyness. So,on my post about Mother's Day, http://leavesgrass.blogspot.com/2006/05/happy-mothers-day-for-all-mothers.html
I put my personal photos for the first time. And it don't hurt me at all! LOL!

I will come back again to read with calm this post.

6:22 pm  
Blogger Brenda said...

To visit a house preserved as if the inhabitants of long ago had just left were coming back and would discover the strangers and the ropes and react who knows how is a surreal experience. Sort of like fires in the rooms on a 30 degree day and not feeling the heat. Wonderful post!

1:14 am  
Blogger phlegmfatale said...

Wow - that's spellbinding. I saw a news piece on this museum on television in the US, but it seemed merely a curiosity. Based on your experience, I'll seek it out next time I'm in England.

1:29 am  
Blogger zhoen said...

My lifelong fantasy is to peek into another time. Not big moments or important people, just ordinary folks in another time. To chat about clothing and shopping, day to day details, pleasures and discomforts.

Thank you for sharing this.

2:26 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Thanks all.
Stray: I will reserve the book at the library! Thank you so much for this comment. Glad I'm not the only one with reservations.

Jean: Yes, do go.

Rdl: Thank you :-)

G: You could say that. Reeling in a good way though.

Pam:Check on the timings of the house opening hours before you book your flights ... it's only open a couple of days a month.

Herhimnbryn: I had a feeling you in particular might identify ...

Chuck: Thank you ...

LJ: .. and you too!

Sonia: Loved this comment. Thank you!

Brenda: My feelings exactly .. wouldn't that be a great work of art to bequeath to the future?

PF: So nice to hear from you again here and elsewhere on tbe blog! Thank you. As I said before, when you do make your flight bookings make sure they fit in the with the house opening times ...

Zhoen: When (not if!) you come,you will love it, I promise.

7:54 am  

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