Magazine article The Spectator

A Virtually Real Past

Magazine article The Spectator

A Virtually Real Past

Article excerpt


by Dennis Severs

Chatto, L20, pp. 286, ISBN 0701172797 I only once went to Dennis Severs's house when he was alive. Although we live quite close, it was not until I was asked if I would like to accompany a party of visiting postgraduate students from the H. F. du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware that I was able to experience its peculiar version of historical make-belief. I don't remember any specific aspects of the visit, more its atmosphere, the superabundance of objects in every room, the idea that it was possible to live a life that was a complete fantasy, and the mood of gimcrack whim sustained by the belief that the house he had bought in Folgate Street, only a stone's throw from Liverpool Street station, was really owned by a family called Jervis whom he had invented.

Dennis Severs was a Californian who developed a highly romanticised view of the English past as a child and came to London the moment he graduated from high school. He first worked as a tour guide, taking people round west London in a horse-drawn carriage. He was befriended by two families whose country houses inspired a desire to replicate their mood of age and decay. Then, in 1979, he was able to buy one of the houses in Folgate Street close to Spital Square which the newly formed Spitalfields Trust was beginning to save from urban blight. He had no money and claims that he ate the remains of vegetables left in the morning by Spitalfields Market. But he was able to fill the house with all the cheap antiques he had bought over the years and began to weave a historical narrative round them, making his living by allowing visitors to come on an evening trip which was constructed as a theatrical experience.

The book of the tour which has now been published after his death is, like the tour itself, charming and, in a curious way, rather artless. It is hard to imagine anyone English going so bananas about the early 18th century that they would plant loud-- speakers under the floorboards in order to replicate the sound of an 18th-century baby. But, in the end, there is something impressive about someone so completely determined to live in the past, who believed that the 18th-century housekeeper still sat downstairs, and his passion for reconstructing every aspect of past lived experience and the way that objects can unlock a narrative.

He starts his tour in the low-ceilinged kitchen in the basement, where he digresses about the sugar loaf. …

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