Reflections from my Writing Room February 2024


This month’s reflections were inspired by a prompt from one of the Writers’ Groups I belong to. The challenge was to write a piece inspired by a building with several storeys. It could be an office block, a hotel or somewhere else. It took me a while to decide but I landed on a house, three centuries old, with eleven rooms over four floors and a basement plus a couple of centuries worth of stories to tell. I hope this piece inspires anyone who hasn’t been there to visit.

This house was dragged back from the edge of decay and dilapidation. Rooms are packed to the rafters but dressed with artefacts that aren’t valuable. The stacked blue and white china looks impressive piled on a mantelpiece but most likely it’s cracked. Throw in some cheap present-day souvenirs picked up at an airport shop. And cleverly disguised polystyrene. There’s no museum style curation. No neatly printed explanatory labels, just letters or scribbled notes from the fictional residents. Whispers from imagined past lives guide you through the looking glass into … what exactly?

So, where are we?

We’re in Spitalfields, London at 18 Folgate Street, often referred to as Dennis Severs house. It’s a few years since I visited so my personal recollection of the rooms is misty. This piece won’t be a photo-realistic room-by-room description. What I recall is the atmosphere and the sensory experience right down to the basics of an unemptied chamber pot.

Have I unsettled you yet? Let’s chuck in some background for a bit of grounding.

Dennis Severs, an American artist who loved all things Georgian, moved to London in around 1979 and discovered the endangered silk weavers’ houses in Spitalfields. In this area, Protestant Huguenots, fleeing persecution, came to settle in the early eighteenth century. The house at no. 18 Folgate Street, dates from 1724 and is part of a terrace. Severs bought it in 1979 and lived there until his death in 1999.

Dennis was a weaver, too. A weaver of stories intertwined with stage settings and performance art. As he set about renovating the house, he invented a fictional family by the name of Jervis, anglicised from ‘Gervais’ and reimagined their lives in the house throughout the years from 1725 to 1919. The rooms are designed in different historic styles to show a progression of changes over two centuries.  The experience is like a walk through time.

On arrival, you step out of the 21st century into the Jervises' eighteenth century world. A reception room has a central table piled with ornaments and trinkets. Strict faces of gentlemen in wigs gaze down from portraits, firelight bouncing off their slick oil-painted sheen. The room is cold but has a blazing fire; darkish but lit by flickering candles in a chandelier. And it has an authentic earthy smell about it. What you experience in a visit isn’t about what you see with your eyes. It’s a good idea to turn down your visual sense and tune into what’s in the air.

A stroll through the rooms leads you through a collection of atmospheres reflecting the spirit of the day, showcasing culture and politics alongside daily life. You progress with time – through all of the Georgian monarchs to the late Victorians and Edwardians. At points in their story, the Jervises become wealthy and the relative opulence of the rooms reflects this. But they always lived in crowded conditions.

As you enter each room, you might sense that someone has only just left. A faint smell or the swish of a skirt, the slam of a door. The house is left untidy because they weren’t expecting visitors. You’ll spot an unfinished breakfast with a half-eaten boiled egg, a personal hand-written letter, a wedding ring. You don’t (or shouldn’t) pause to study an individual piece of art or pottery but keep your mind alert for subtle clues. A note for a seamstress saying ‘Let out here’ is pinned to a waisted dress and suggests that the lady of the house might have been putting on weight.

A family of six lived in one bedroom. You’ll see children’s shoes discarded under an upholstered blue chair, the bed is rumpled, the linen dirty. The pungent smell of a freshly sliced onion. And another, more disgusting and less subtle – an unemptied chamber pot.

If you examine the settings too closely the façade will shatter. Ceiling mouldings are made from plastic fruit; a bed from polystyrene coving, scroll-like decorations from painted loo rolls. Dennis  worked with only a small budget for renovations. He also lived , worked and slept here. When asked in an interview how he survived without mod cons, he said he lived as the Jervises did – sending his washing out to the laundry, ordering in bread and cakes from a bakery – he name-checked Marks and Spencer. There are a few nods to modernity. A fridge that he kept because it predated 1979. Two light bulbs and a Thomas Crapper loo in the backyard.

One image still lingers in my memory  – the attic bedroom at the top of the house. Leaving behind the relative opulence downstairs, we enter a Dickensian territory of impoverished Victorian life. Cracked plaster on unadorned walls, damp dangling laundry, broken windows (or perhaps they were frames without glass) stuffed with newspaper to keep out the cold.

If you want historical accuracy or the real deal of genuine artefacts, get along to one of our numerous galleries, museums, castles and National Trust properties. Folgate Street is not that. Dennis Sever’s promise was:  ‘I will get the 21st century out of your eyes and ears. With every age we visit, we will be governed by a spirit.’

After that, it’s up to you because, as Dennis also said,  ‘You either see it, or you don’t.’

For my research for this piece, I drew on memories of my own visit and looked at Dennis Severs house official website (below) and Instagram. I also read the Wikipedia entry and watched an interview between Severs and Francine Stock posted on YouTube (date unknown).

For booking information:

The House is open Thursday to Sunday with staggered entry.

Readers of my previous blogs will know that I love to write about old houses. Check out Façadeçade – set behind the decaying walls of an old Georgian rectory in a family ‘where silence echoes louder than truth.’

And Lies Behind the Ruin where a family flees to France to renovate a ruined farm outbuilding but walks into danger because ‘how can you build a new life on toxic foundations?’

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