Silence is Golden in Dennis Severs’ House

I had wanted to visit Dennis Severs’ House for a long time now, ever since I first came across it some years ago. I was working nearby in Spitalfields, and I happened to notice the imposing Georgian house with its sleek black door lit up by a gaslight as I walked by it on 18 Folgate Street. I was intrigued about what lay inside as I thought it was a museum, but I never actually went in there until now. Dennis Severs header I was recently having a chat with my deaf and hard of hearing friends about what museums and exhibitions we wanted to go and see as a group when I suddenly remembered this place. I had a look on their website and saw that they did evening candlelit tours in silence. Perfect! For once none of us need worry about whether it would be accessible to us or what sort of communication support, if any, would be provided. We could all do the tour in silence, and it would be a level playing-field for all. So our small group arranged to meet up last Monday to do the silent candlelit tour. We met up beforehand and arrived in front of the house at our allocated time of 7.30 pm. My wife Joanna knocked on the door, which was opened by a rather creepy, formal-looking bloke, who stood outside and explained the house rules to us in a rather stern manner. I couldn’t follow what he was saying, but Joanna said that he was explaining what to expect inside and what the “rules of the game” were. He was telling us to be careful of the lit candles and to observe the house rules of not speaking once we were inside the house. Dennis Severs dining room The candlelit tour of Dennis Severs’s House is a silent tour of the ten rooms, which make up the house. Dennis Severs was an eccentric Californian artist who bought the dilapidated Georgian house in 1979 and then spent the next twenty years doing it up and buying paintings, furniture, old crockery and artefacts to furnish the house and create the atmosphere and moods that he wanted to show the public to demonstrate his art. Unlike other museums, it feels like you are stepping into a domestic family scene full of living, breathing people and he wanted us to use our senses to imagine the domestic scene of the time, which was unfolding before our eyes. Dennis Severs pic in house We were asked to imagine a fictional Huguenot family of silk weavers called the Jervises, who apparently lived in Georgian times, but it feels like you are time-travelling, because although most of the scenes you come across are from the18th Century, there are actually some objects and artefacts which date from as recently as 1914. We started our tour in the basement and moved from room to room, before climbing the creaky stairs to discover the rest of the house floor by floor. Immediately we walked into the kitchen, it felt like we had just disturbed the Jervis family, who had left only moments before. There was half-prepared food on the kitchen table. I could smell the oranges and fruit left there, and see a pillar of natural sea salt, which they used to season their meals. We were being asked to use our imagination to picture the scene of food being prepared and cooked there. As we walked around the kitchen, we observed and took in the sights and smells before us in silence, whilst signing to one another to point things out and ask questions of each other. It was good that my limited sign language was proving handy to communicate with the others and we were all enjoying the moment. Dennis Severs kitchen As we moved up the floors from room to room a story of domestic family life was unfolding before our eyes. In several rooms there were paintings on the walls by Hogarth and other Old Masters showing the faces of some of the household members, which were lit by candlelight and the smoky light of the open fires in the hearths. It felt like I was stepping into a 3-D painting, which was full of life. There were various signs scattered amongst the rooms providing a brief explanation of what each room was showing, and throughout the house there were signs asking us “Have you got it yet?”, as if the owner was playing a game with us. Dennis Severs Hogarth In one of the sitting rooms there was a clock ticking and even though I couldn’t hear it, I could imagine it ticking. I could also feel the very old uneven floorboards creaking as I moved across them and smell the food, which had been left there half-eaten. Half a glass of port had been left there, along with a pair of glasses, as if whoever had been there had been disturbed halfway through their meal. Joanna signed to me that there were sound effects of birds tweeting in a cage and church bells ringing from the church outside. I couldn’t hear these sounds but I could feel and imagine them. It felt like an attack on my senses, and it was very atmospheric in the smoky, candlelit rooms. Smoking Room detail As I walked into one of the bedrooms, I saw a four-poster bed, which was still unmade. There was a black cat lying on the bed, which I assumed was stuffed. Even though we were not supposed to touch anything, I couldn’t resist the temptation to see if it was real or not, so imagine my surprise when I reached out to touch it and I saw its tail twitch! It was a real-life cat, which apparently lives in the house, so I stroked it and I could feel it purring. When we left the house, we went over the road to a lovely pub, where we chatted about the house and what we thought of the experience. We had all really enjoyed it, as it was different to anything we had seen before and we hadn’t had to worry about access and communication barriers. We were a group of hearing and deaf people, so we chatted in a very relaxed way, using a mixture of talking, lipreading and signing. We all had a great time at Dennis Severs’s House, which was an amazing visual sensory experience. The artist David Hockney once rated it as “standing amongst those of the greatest opera experiences”. I’d love to go back there again one day as I’m sure that I’ll see and experience things that I’ve missed this time. It’s definitely one to go back to and revisit.

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