The fantasy of Dennis Severs

Immerse yourself in the 18th century in this terraced house in Spitalfields, where scented pomanders, half-eaten bread, used chamber pots, dripping laundry and muffled voices in the next room will have you convinced there is a Georgian family still lurking within its walls

Photo © Dennis Severs' House/Roelof Bakker

Photo © Dennis Severs' House/Roelof Bakker

The tangle of narrow streets around Old Spitalfields Market (E1) has the appearance of a film set. The drama in question is set in the late 17th and 18th centuries, when the area was settled by Protestant Huguenot silk weavers fleeing Catholic persecution in France. The mercers controlling this lucrative industry chose Spitalfields to avoid the restrictive legislation of the City’s guilds, and built the red-brick terraces and chapels still standing today. Subsequent waves of Irish, Jewish and Bangladeshi immigrants have also left their mark.

Anyone interested in Georgian architecture (1720–1830) should walk these streets. At 56 and 58 Artillery Lane, for example, some of London’s oldest wooden shopfronts were added in the 1750s to weavers’ houses built in 1715. More well-preserved Georgian terraces line Wilkes Street, Princelet Street and Fournier Street, where the silk for Queen Victoria’s Coronation gown was woven. It is sometimes possible to look inside these historic homes, notably on Princelet Street, where number 13 has been impeccably restored to provide visitor accommodation and number 19 converted into a unique museum illustrating how immigrants have helped shape not only Spitalfields but also multicultural Britain.

An unforgettable opportunity is provided by a visit to Dennis Severs’ House at 18 Folgate Street. Built in 1724, this red-brick terrace has been transformed by its former owner into something very special. That Dennis Severs (1948–1999), born in California, was first drawn to London by what he called “English light” speaks volumes about his approach to restoration. When he arrived on Folgate Street in 1979, the four-storey property with basement was in a dilapidated condition. Spitalfields was, at the time, run-down and popular with artists in search of cheap living. Severs occupied the property until his death 20 years later and during that time renovated and furnished the building’s 10 rooms in a style that would have been familiar not only to its original Huguenot occupants but also to those living here until the First World War.

Photo © Dennis Severs' House/Roelof Bakker

Photo © Dennis Severs' House/Roelof Bakker

What sets the place apart is Severs’ insistence on creating what he called a “domestic still life drama”, a series of tableaux vivants giving the impression that the occupants have merely stepped outside for a moment. Guttering candles, half-eaten bread, laundry on a drying rack, scented pomanders, and muffled voices in the next room. Severs said that he “worked inside out to create…a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbour the light and the spirit of various ages.”

Woven through the house is the story of the fictitious Jervis family (their name anglicised from the original French ‘Gervais’). Each room evokes moments from their lives as imagined by Severs. Although it seems a pity he is no longer a physical presence at the property, in dying Severs enabled the place to be opened up to a wider public. He bequeathed the house to the Spitalfields Trust with careful instructions on how best the visitor should experience it: in silence and with an open mind. This advice holds especially true during the candlelit ‘Silent Night’ tours available by appointment.

Georgian London continues farther west on Lamb’s Conduit Street (WC1) (don’t miss London’s narrowest alley, 67cm wide, nearby at 7 Rugby Street), Bedford Square (WC1), Henrietta Street (WC2), and Queen Anne’s Gate (SW1), a superbly-preserved Georgian street with a series of ornately carved wooden door canopies. A little older is Goodwin’s Court, an atmospheric gas-lit alley off St. Martin’s Lane (WC2), with bow-fronted windows dating from 1690.

Photo © Dennis Severs' House/Roelof Bakker

Photo © Dennis Severs' House/Roelof Bakker

Dennis Severs’ House at 18 Folgate Street (E1 6BX), open Sun 12am–4pm, Mon following the 1st and 3rd Sun 12am–2pm; ‘Silent Night’ tours Apr–Sep Mon 6–9pm, Oct–Mar Wed 6–9pm by appointment only; dennissevershouse.co.uk

Getting there: Circle, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan lines to Liverpool Street; London Overground to Shoreditch High Street

This article is adapted from Duncan JD Smith’s new book Only in London: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Unusual Objects published by The Urban Explorer. Existing titles in the “Only In” series cover Berlin, Budapest, Hamburg, Munich, Paris, Prague, Vienna and Zurich. Find out more at onlyinguides.com and duncanjdsmith.com.