18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields

6 July 2011

Aut Visum Aut Non!’ – You either see it or you don’t. (The motto of 18 Folgate Street)

As I may have mentioned a few times before, Spitalfields is the place that I feel most comfortable, happy and at home and of course no one who is interested in the area and its richly diverse history can fail to visit the former home of Dennis Severs at 18 Folgate Street, which serves as an echoing monument to the past.

To briefly explain, Californian artist Dennis Severs bought the then dilapidated 18 Folgate Street in 1979 and lived there until his death in December 1999, making it his project to transform the house into a living time capsule of various different periods in the district’s history with each room as you travel from the bowels of the house to the attics above transformed into a multi layered and sensuous set evoking a whole host of memories and stories.

Although I had seen photographs of the Marie Celeste like interior with its unmade beds, abandoned meals, spilled tea and mess of crumbling clay pipes and everyday detritus in the fireplaces, I didn’t really know what to expect as I turned off busy Commercial Street and headed down narrow Folgate Street to number 18.

Just as I was beginning to wonder if I had accidentally walked past the house, I spied some flaming torches outside and a notice asking visitors to ring the bell discreetly stuck to the outside of the door. Embarrassingly, I thought the bell was a push one and it took a few moments of loitering on the doorstep to realise that it was an old fashioned Pull Out Then Let It Go business, which makes sense of course!

We were greeted very warmly by the curator and led inside to begin our tour. Although the website suggests that this is not a place to take children, I decided to take F along with me as he is very keen on history and I thought he would really enjoy the visit. I was really pleased when the lovely curator immediately directed all of his comments to F, shook his hand and even crouched down to his eye level to talk to him. It’s not a place to take boisterous, noisy children but a quiet, thoughtful child who can be trusted to Look But Not Touch would make excellent company while walking around. F was great although he came away with a LOT of questions about tricorn hats, quills, chamber pots, hair feathers, oysters, tea leaves and the lives of little boys like himself in Georgian times.

At 18 Folgate Street, the visitor is told that they have just interrupted the Jervis family, who are well to do Huguenot silk weavers and who are always one step ahead as you walk through the house, so you can hear and smell their shades but never catch a glimpse of them. It’s like stepping into a ghost story or a fairytale as you creep silently through the house like Goldlilocks in search of a family who remain tantalisingly just out of reach, until you finally realise that they are there the whole time with their murmurings and soft laughter…

The tour began down some rickety stairs in the basement of the building, where there is a small dark and untidy Georgian kitchen with windows that look up onto street level so you can see the legs of modern London gamboling by. Visitors to the house are requested to remain silent at all times so as to listen to the sounds of the house – this is a highly sensory experience that needs to be savoured slowly as you walk around each room, taking in and being inspired by the smells, sounds and sights that surround you.

From the kitchen we went back up the stairs to the rooms on the ground floor and then up the rickety staircase to the rooms above. Each of the ten rooms had its own distinct style, with occasionally overpowering smells that effectively evoked the echoes and stories of the past from the heavily and cloyingly perfumed lady’s bedroom at the front of the house, where the dressing table is scattered with jewels, rouge, powders wrapped in pieces of paper and letters to the room on the first floor which evokes the aftermath of a Hogarthian orgy, complete with strewn oyster shells, spilled wine and the heavy smell of tobacco and dirty men.

As you can expect, there is no electric light inside the building so each room is lit only by flickering candle light that gives the house a dimly lit, occasionally eye smartingly sooty ambience that more accurately takes you back to the past than the more sterile reconstructions you may find in museums. It’s like stepping into a painting and finding that what lies behind the canvas is so much more than you could ever have imagined.

I felt extraordinarily sad when we had descended the stairs for the last time and found ourselves back on Folgate Street again, surrounded by the sirens, buzz and chatter of the modern city. I had high expectations of 18 Folgate Street, but actually it was so much better and more magical than I could ever have imagined and I came away extremely inspired by what I had just experienced. In fact I can’t remember the last time I felt so inspired. I’m trying not to give too much away in this post by the way, as I think this is something very, very special that you all deserve to discover properly for yourselves and I really do encourage you to visit if you are in the vicinity when it is open.

Thank you so much to Mick and David for letting me visit and for your amazing hospitality. I’m still in awe of what Dennis Severs achieved and really thankful that he so generously shared his utterly incredible and bewitching vision with us all. From now on I won’t be considering a visit to London complete without a detour to this enchanted corner.

You can find out more about visiting 18 Folgate Street at their website.

All photographs are posted by permission of the Dennis Severs’ House.