Wax candles have burned low in their holders and the salty smell of roasting mutton fills the basement kitchen. On a scarred table, a gingerbread cookie props open an ancient children’s book. Upstairs, a bundle of silks awaits a seamstress, with a note attached: “Coronation date July 19, 1821. Do by July 1.”
At Dennis Severs’ House in London’s East End neighborhood of Spitalfields, you’re meant to think that a fictitious family will be back any moment.
Severs, a Californian artist, bought and moved into the 18th-century terrace house in 1979. As quoted by the British newspaper The Telegraph, he felt that “the material things I had been collecting all my life were really a cast of characters, and the house was destined to be their stage.” Severs ripped out all the modern amenities and concocted an elaborate “story” for the house, in which the building belonged to a family of Huguenot silk weavers. In each of the 10 rooms, he created a tableau from a different time period between 1724 and 1914. The house was the culmination of a dream he had harbored since childhood.
“Down deep, I always believed that one day I would travel past picture frames and into the glow of a warmer, more mellow and more romantic light,” he once wrote. “There was one 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.”
Severs died in December 1999, but the Spitalfields Trust has maintained the house exactly as it was when he lived there. The property is open several days a month, but there are no tours. Visitors are encouraged to simply roam—in silence, explains house manager Mick Pedroli, so that they can concentrate on what their senses are telling them.
No plaques describe the antiques’ purpose or history. Instead, Severs’ own cryptic signs are scattered about on mantels and walls. According to Pedroli, the signs are designed to jolt visitors out of a museum mindset so they can see the property as Severs did: as a home.
“You’re still looking at things instead of what things are doing,” reads one sign. Another scolds, “Some visitors will scurry from object to object like mice—some like rats. Silly things; art is only visible from three steps back.”
“This house was his life,” says David Milne, one of Severs’ friends who tends fireplaces, lights candles and otherwise helps bring the house to life on visiting days.
In the smoking room hangs a Hogarth painting of a raucous party; in the room itself, Severs recreated the aftermath of the festivities, complete with overturned chairs. Pointing to the painting, Milne says, “Dennis would see something like that and say, ‘I want that to be my world.’”