The Brown Bags Take You on a Tour of Wonderment

Brown Bag 23nd March 2011
Attic Review
“The Artist As Curator: Dennis Severs' House, Spitalfields”

David Milne, Keeper, Dennis Severs House

Humanity has a deep-seated need for imagination. It is at the root of our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and disasters. We also have a fundamental need for the past, to know what we were and where we came from, in order to know what we can or might be. Bringing those things together is the role of the storyteller: the role, then, of the curator. But it is seen as a difficult thing to achieve.

It can, however, be done, and done well. David Milne's Brown Bag seminar today was a stunning example of how artistry, theatre, and love can come together to create a vision of a place, its past, and its populations. At 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London, the late artist Dennis Severs created an astonishing, fully immersive artistic intervention, a three dimensional painting, in which historical boundaries are transcended and the personal time of the visitor, and the world which they have just entered, collide and coalesce. The visitor embarks upon a tour of ten rooms, following the story of the House and its occupants from the 18th century's days of grandeur, to the latter 19th century, and the deprivation and poverty of the Dickensian city. We were lucky enough to be invited on that tour today, albeit through photographs alone – a small taste of the experience which certainly whet my appetite for more.

You begin in the basement, where ancient Spitalfields lies. Genuine cobwebs, history's signature upon the House, make the light diffused and opaque, and you realise the antiquity of the site, and the palimpsestual nature of living and dwelling.

Moving into the kitchen, you enter the realm of the Jervises, a Hugenot weaver family who fled to Spitalfields from persecution. Scents linger in the air...sometimes cooking, sometimes the fresh air of spring. And outside, there are horses on the cobbled street, and the distant movement of the House, the whispered voices of the family who just seem to have left.

Emerging up to the ground floor, and moving forwards in time, you come to the heavily baroque Dining Chamber, Dutch in style and filled with dark cabinets for curiosities and collections. These cabinets seem a strange evocation of Dennis Severs' own approach: to collect things which were precious and pleasing, to make no forced attempt at historical 'accuracy.' This is an interesting approach – all spaces, all attempts to recreate a historic environment, all are fictions. The difference here is that Folgate Street never makes any secret of its theatricality. In fact, it is this theatricality which provides it with its own kind of truth.

It is not, however, a space in which historical research is underused: in the Dining Room, the favoured guest seems to have been seated above the salt, the most expensive item on the table, in much the same way as they would have been three centuries and more ago. I say seems, because you notice as you move a paradoxically present absence, the inhabitants who always remain just a little out of reach. Things, personal items and half eaten food are the indications that a moment ago, there was somebody living and breathing in here. But the occupants themselves are forever not quite there.

These occupants lend a life to Folgate Street, a life so often missing in the roped and musealised historic house. But here is a 'wonderful madness' which fills the space, which invites you, the visitor, in to be a part of it, to add to it. And this you realise, as you come to understand that the House is never standing still. Constantly changing in scent, sound and light, not just within a single visit but over the course of its own biography, this House never allows itself to die, to sit still. In the Smoking Room, you note the Hogarth on the wall. This room was based upon the work of Hogarth, yet this painting appeared only after the room's original creation. The painting, when it arrived, gave new life and new characters to the House, for the figures in the painting seem to have left their effects around the Smoking Room, in which the fireplace burns.

By the time you reach the Drawing Room, you have arrived in the Neoclassical London of the 1750s, the time of the House's first real modernisation, and the change from the cluttered eclecticism of the previous rooms is clear. Here, the demand was for lightness, for symmetry and balance, for a purity and beauty. But here too remain uncanny echoes, for in this room Dennis Severs recreated the ceiling of a lost house of Spitalfields Square, torn down in the late 1970s before the introduction of the planning laws. Its beautiful plasterwork was lost, but using historical plans, Severs created a new version. This is a strange kind of recreation – not an imitation as much as a homage, a lament for what was lost. Other things often forgotten appear in this space. The Lady of the House makes an appearance – an unusual occurrence in a historic house, where usually the female characters are more or less consigned to the kitchen.

You move on, the to apex of the House's period of prosperity, to the Master Bedroom, which represents the last days of the profitable silk production. In this chamber, life becomes only more apparent, for upon the dressing table, antique even for the time of the setting, lie scattered jewels, wigs and personal devotional items, the ruins of an 18th century lady's night out. The occupants of the space, however, exist at various levels of temporal removal from yourself, for it was here that Dennis Severs himself lived, conducting his affairs from this site, much as his 18th century forbears would have done. His computer, in fact, now an antique itself, can still be found behind a screen. Precious things, no matter their age, fashion or use, are valued for their inherent values, the stories and connections which they can make. In this room, occupancy and ownership are problematized. Is it Severs' space? That of the Lady of the House? Or is it both of these and more?

Moving through into the Regency Room of the 1830s, you enter the beginning of the House's period of decline. The master of the house has died, and the sound creates a sense of a city on the brink of an unprecedented explosion. And by the time you enter the uppermost room, in which an almost destitute family of weavers lives in 19th century East End poverty, and then on to a room inspired by the social eye of Charles Dickens, you know that you are following the history not just of a family or house, but of an area, an industry, a city – a changing way of life.

For years people in the heritage sector laughed at Severs, calling Folgate Street theatre, illusion, rubbish, incorrect. But the tide, fortunately, is now turning, for as the profession becomes increasingly self-reflexive, and understands the products it creates as creations – as subjective, inventive, as more and less than what they intend to represent – it can begin to see the value in imagination, and the truth that comes from a living, breathing material engagement with story, space and object which a place such as Dennis Severs House provides. Nantucket Coffin House, one of the oldest houses in the United States, invited Milne out to consider how the site might come to life. He has worked with the Back to Back project in Birmingham, and currently is in discussion with Coughton Court and Metaphor. In bringing back life, through imagination, physical experience and material goods, the houses can become truly active, demanding agents in the emotional lives of their users.

This is a place which questions what truth means, in which your senses become confused as to your temporal location as you hear a cannon fire a hundred and seventy four years ago, when a Queen came to the throne. It is space of escape, a space of personal discoveries and imaginings. People have cried in Dennis Severs' House, simply because they saw something, or because they did not see.

Thank you, David, for giving us a presentation so out of the ordinary, and for showing us the value of imagination, of artistry – and for showing us the power of the 'truth of life's fictions.'*

* Thi Minh-Ha Trinh, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics, (London: Routledge, 1991)


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