Partner Simon Pettet
Dennis Severs' House, 18 Folgate St, London E1 6BX, UK
St Mary, King's Walk, Stradsett, Downham Market PE33 9HA, UK
It became, as he described it, "a famous time-machine" in which those prepared to enter his empathetic historical imagination and to suspend disbelief (never mind mundane considerations of historical fact, conventional museum practice or conservation philosophy) could find themselves transported into a dream which illuminated the complicated and poignant social history of that ancient part of London.
Although sneered at by many who suffer from what he would have dismissed as "pigeonholed styles of intelligence" inhibiting creativity, Severs was a true original, an artist of perverse genius who created a three-dimensional historical novel out of bricks and mortar and timber and the objects he picked up for a song on countless stalls.
The social historian Raphael Samuel considered it "a magical mystery tour which dazzles the visitor with a succession of scenes more crowded with memorable incident than the mere facsimile of what passes in the museums as a period room".
Severs was born in Californian, the son of Earl and Helen Severs, then of Escondito, who already had four sons between them by different marriages. In an unpublished guide to his house entitled The Space Between, Severs recalled that, as a dreamy and imaginative child, he was regarded at one of his several schools as somewhere between "exceptional" and "mentally retarded."
Severs visited England in 1965 and moved to London two years later, after high school graduation. In London at first he ran horse-drawn open carriage tours around Hyde Park and the West End ("See Something Different Graciously"). "Down deep," he recalled, "I always believed that one day I would travel past picture frames and into the marinated glow of a warmer, more mellow and more romantic light. There was one such light in particular, one that I saw in the combination of old varnish and paint, and that appealed to me as my ideal. By the age of 11, it was identified as English." But then his stable, near Gloucester Road, was demolished by a developer. He bought the brick George I terraced house, to which he devoted the rest of his life, in 1979.
It was the right time: the campaign to restore Hawksmoor's great church nearby had begun, while the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust was fighting to prevent the erosion of that run-down, but mysterious, inner suburb. The artists Gilbert and George had already moved into Fournier Street while, more significantly perhaps, another pioneering resident was the late Raphael Samuel, whose analysis of the contemporary phenomenon of "retrochic" in his book, Theatres of Memory, celebrated that restorative sympathy for the artefacts of the past that so moved Dennis.
As he put it, he did not want so much to "restore" the house with its panelled rooms, "but to bring it to life as my home. With a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll, I began sleeping in each of the house's 10 rooms so that I might arouse my intuition in the quest for each room's soul. Then, having neared it, I worked inside out from there to create what turned out to be a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbour the light and the spirit of various ages in Time." Severs invented a family called Jervis who had lived there over the centuries and whose members had apparently just left each of the rooms entered. With that openness and lack of prejudice which is America at its best, he cleverly combined low and high tech: real guttering candles co-existed with concealed taped sound-effects in settings which he constantly refined. Nor was this frivolous or cynical: visitors who giggled or who were otherwise unable to enter into the spirit of the enterprise would be summarily ejected.
Shortly before he died two days after Christmas, ravaged by cancer, bravely borne, after long being HIV-positive, his house was bought by the Spitalfields Trust. "Sadly," Dennis wrote, "I have recently come to accept what I refused to accept for so long: that the house is only ephemeral. That no one can put a preservation order on atmosphere." But as of 2018 the house is still operating as a living museum.
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