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Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The house that Dennis built.(Revised September 2011)


Since early childhood I have been fascinated by Georgian architecture. I was heavily influenced by the then derelict Hylands House in Essex. Despite its parlous state and my comparative youth, I used to daydream about how the mansion might have looked in its heyday and would have willingly taken up residence in the near-ruin if I had been given the chance. Over the decades I feared that Hylands House would be pulled down as it grew more and more neglected. To my great surprise and pleasure Hylands House was transformed by a major programme of renovation in the latter part of the last century. Although it has a stunning exterior which closely resembles that of my beloved Kenwood House in North London, the restored interiors are a tad too flamboyant for my tastes, although no doubt great pains were taken to ensure historical accuracy.


The closest I ever got to realising my dream of living in a Georgian house was when I thought I was relocating to County Durham. For the same price of a tiny flat in London I could have bought a substantial property in the North East. I had my pick of period properties ranging from a former shepherd’s cottage, a picturesque house with original window seats and a mature cottage garden, a late Georgian townhouse in a village overlooked by a medieval castle, to a 3 storey 17th century town house complete with original flagged floors, oak beams and stone fireplaces. My dreams were dashed when company was taken over by another and all prospective corporate relocations were summarily halted.

I had neither the opportunity nor the resources to realise my ambitions of living in a Georgian house unlike the American Dennis Severs. He had been born in California in 1948. With money from the family petrol stations he came over to England, attracted by impressions of its 19th and 18th century past. For a while he offered visitors the chance to travel around the more salubrious parts of London in a horse and carriage. When that came to an end, he decided to buy an 18th century town house in Spitalfields, then a run down part of East London.

Like Hackney, Spitalfields had once been a very fashionable district, although it never boasted the grand Tudor mansions of Hackney. (Hackney's Tudor mansions ) Its own heyday had been in the 18th century when it had formed the centre of the silk trade. Forced to flee France by the punitive anti-Protestant laws imposed by the Catholic state, Huguenots weavers and merchants took up residence in the area. From the profits generated ny their trade, the merchants were able to built imposing residences for themselves. The decline of the silk trade brought a corresponding decline in the area. In the 19th century more refugees flooded in, this time Jews fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe.

Three years ago I was fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity to go inside 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields. In the 18th century it was the home of Huguenot weavers. In the 1860s Jewish refugees turned it into a synagogue. Now it is a museum re-telling the story of the different waves of immigrants who lived in this area up until the present day. The house and the synagogue are in a fragile state and it is to be hoped that they can be saved. I also had the chance to explore the even more derelict rooms above the synagogue. One of these rooms became something of a cause célèbre in 1980 when a locked room was opened up for the first time since 1969. It has last been lived in by a certain David Rodinsky, a Jewish scholar. The room had  suddenly and explicitly been abandoned to the extent of a pot of porridge was found on the stove and a half drunk mug of tea left on a table. What added to the mystery was that Rodinsky himself had seemingly vanished into thin air, there being no apparent trace of him after that date. The author Rachel Lichtenstein wrote a fascinating account of the event in her book “Rodinsky's Room,” which also resolves the mystery of what really happened to David Rodinsky. 19 Princelet Street museum





It is possible that Dennis Severs might have heard of the mysterious locked room above the synagogue in nearby Princelet Street, when he set about re-creating his vision of how his own Huguenot house might have looked when the original owners were living there in the 18th century. He wanted to create a theatrical experience in which visitor would see the house it as if his fictional 18th century family had just vanished from sight. Thus, there would be the everyday sights and smells of an occupied house as opposed to the sterile atmosphere of a museum. When he bought his property the 18th century houses in the vicinity were all facing the genuine threat of demolition. It was claimed they were in too great a state of decay to be saved and should be demolished to make way for a complete redevelopment of the site. A determined campaign by local residents saved the area from the bulldozer. Now those once despised houses are worth an absolute fortune.

When Dennis Severs turned his house in Folgate Street into a living exploration of the changing fortunes of a Huguenot family, his efforts did not find favour with academics. They insisted on strict authenticity. Dennis took a far more inventive approach to furnishing and decorating his house. For example, unable to find or afford the decorative plaster carvings of fruit so admired in the 18th century, he bought some wax fruit and nuts from a local supermarket, covered them with plaster of Paris and fixed them to the ceiling. Likewise, the colour of the paint in part of the hall is pink. It is not authentic to the period but Dennis liked the effect even if purists might purse their lips.

The rooms are staged to follow the fortunes of the fictional Jervis family. They begin with the family enjoying an affluent lifestyle. Gradually, the family fortunes go into a decline reflecting the real life collapse of the silk trade. Finally, the fictional family have been forced to eke out their days in a single shabby room under the eaves, the roof leaking and all trace of the splendours of the lower floors vanished forever.

Dennis did not want his house to be an arid museum piece. To give the sense of a real family living there he slept in the beds, cooked in the kitchens and smoked his pipe in the dining room. To the consternation of visitors, Dennis would go so far as to urinate into a chamber pot whilst conducting them on tours. In that he was simply recreating the habits of 18th century gentlemen, who would think nothing of openly urinating into chamber pots whilst dining with friends in the same room. On another occasion, Dennis frog-marched a hapless visitor out of the house when he thought she was not taking his tour in the right spirit. His fearsome reputation meant that I never got around to visiting his house whilst he was still alive. I have been on a number of occasions since. I once took the Partridge when the house was lit by candlelight and the back parlour was decorated as if for a Victorian Christmas. In the kitchen in the basement, I surreptitiously used a small torch to light the darker recesses of the room. It was an act that might well have earned me a permanent ban if Dennis Severs had still been alive to witness it. Dennis Severs House

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