Category Archives: eccentric artists buying up houses in the East End

Blurring Boundaries in The Dennis Severs House: ‘You Either See It Or You Don’t’

‘It may feel a bit strange at first,’ warns our host, Mick Pedroli, ‘because you have to be completely silent, but as you make your way around, you’ll find yourself immersed in the magic of the house.’ And indeed, it is hard not to feel strange at first, as you enter a candle-lit front room, full of opulent smells and curious sounds as though you are eavesdropping on a lively conversation taking place through the wall in the next room; or indeed as you descend the stone staircase to the basement and the invitingly warm hearth of the Jervis family’s kitchen.

By the time you ascend back up the stairs in order to make your first foray upstairs, it is hard not to become immersed in the magic of The Dennis Severs House, and enveloped in the narrative of this family of silk weavers who rose to wealth and prominence  around the year of our lord, 1724. The family itself is fictional, as you will no doubt find out if you visit. You will also forget this fact as you wander through hallway and drawing room following in the footsteps of their mercurial fortunes.

My particular favourite was ‘The Hogarth Room’, in which hangs a print of the painter’s above the mantelpiece depicting seventeenth century ribaldry of the most raucous sort, with men in expensive wigs and breeches debating, halfway towards fornicating, and falling over themselves with upturned chairs, pipes and glasses of brandy and port wreaking all sorts of havoc. The image itself is mirrored in the room, with furniture arranged meticulously, ash arranged in half-strewn perfection spilling jauntily out of the floor. But clearly, the room would not enchant if it did not fill your nostrils with the rich earthy mixture of fermented fruits and scented tobacco which appears to be wafting up from lazily left punchbowl and pipe hither and thither. The chamber is an olfactory sea of scents, with the faint echo of debauchery and rising tempers echoing in the walls.

Elusively, the experience defies categorization. Clearly, some of the rooms in which you sense the fictional family members’ fates are quite morbid, such as the room on the third floor in which Mr. Jervis’ son hanged himself, and the Dickensian rooms upstairs, sparse and empty, indicative of the decline of the Jervis family and their exodus to the country as they rented out the rooms of the house, but to call it spooky would be to trivialise, since this house builds no expectation of unseen ghosts, except for the unseen phantom of history, appearing to surround us for the passing moments we spend inside the four walls of this Huguenot residence.

In exploring this place, I follow in the footsteps of eccentric compatriot Dennis Severs, who bought the house in the 1970s, and promptly decided it needed a narrative. Thus the Jervis’ came into being. He called his medium ‘still-life drama’ and as many note cards dotted around the house tell us, his mantra was ‘You either see it or you don’t.’ It feels like, ‘You either sense it or you don’t’ would be more accurate, but less catchy.

The Dennis Severs House has slightly odd hours, so it is worth calling ahead. Open Mondays from 6-9, so long as you book ahead and every Sunday afternoon from 12-4. 

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