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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Sneaking into the past at Dennis Severs House

The room is a riot of colours and textures- dark throws and carpets clash with fresh flowers and pastel china. Despite the late evening sunshine, thick drapes throw the room into shadow, only illuminated by flickering candles. You are distracted by the far off sound of voices and coaches as the cat rolls over lazily in a sagging chair. On the mantle, a picture of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation clashes incongruously with a portrait of Queen Victoria. Does this sound like the beginning of a Victorian romance novel? Nope, it’s just one of the rooms in the Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields.

As we discovered later, photography isn't allowed. Since we already had these...
It is worth saying to begin with that the House is not a museum but an art installation. If you are looking for historical accuracy you will be sadly disappointed. The rooms of the house run roughly from the years 1725 to 1837, although a small amount of kitsch seems to have crept quietly into each one. But that doesn’t really detract from what Severs has achieved: an immersive experience of the past. Each room and hallway of the house is completely covered with paintings, knick-nacks, candles and even food. The concept behind Severs’ ‘still life drama’ house is to make the visitors feel as if they are creeping around a house occupied by a silk merchant family. The experience is supplemented by the smell of spices, port, tobacco, flowers, oranges and smoke; as well as a subtle sound effect track.

Not to be overly critical but the experience may have been slightly improved without the artistic interventions of small bits of paper with slightly bizarre comments strewn about the place. ‘Do you get it yet?’ and other offbeat comments by Severs himself printed on standard A4 looking paper. It also didn’t really help that the house was really quite busy on our visit. If happen to be very rich and feel like doing something special/romantic for a history nerd, I would suggest organizing a private visit to the house. If your love interest is a specialist in the Georgians, you will almost certainly get laid after this romantic gesture. Just a suggestion.

Despite having to shuffle around the crowds, all visitors in our party agreed afterwards that they had experienced something quite emotional at some point during their visit. Maybe it was a quiet moment in the kitchen, or pondering in front of the fireplace, but for any true history lover there is something genuinely moving about just for a moment feeling connected to the past. Let’s face it, we all just want to be time travellers and the Dennis Severs House may be the closest we are going to get. For now anyway.

The Dennis Severs House is open on Monday evenings and Sunday afternoons. For more details on visiting and booking, visit:

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