Last week, Dan and I left Brighton for London for a festive date night with a difference; a house tour like no other. I stood between the two Christmas trees and knocked shyly on the big black front door of the ominous-looking red-shuttered townhouse. And waited. The door opened with a little creak, and we crept inside slowly, quietly, excitedly, not quite sure what to expect, the air thick with the smell of Christmas: cinnamon, oranges, mulled wine …
We were at Dennis Severs’ house in the heart of London’s Spitalfields, for a ‘Silent Night’ candlelit tour of its Christmas installation followed by mince pies and mulled wine by the fire. Photography isn’t usually allowed in the house so the atmosphere isn’t disturbed, but they let me hang back until the end to take some photos for you to see. Follow me but remember to sssshhhhhhhh!
Dennis Sever was an eccentric American artist with a vivid imagination who bought this once-dilapidated house in 1979, and lived in the house for nearly 20 years in much the same way as its original occupants would have done in the 18th century. He was interested in the house’s “atmosphere”, and his aim was to try and re-create its former life via a series of 10 rooms which he brought to life as multi-sensory evocations of the past.
He imagined a history for the house: a Huguenot family called Jervis whose generations lived in it through the centuries – from the time of Spitalfields’ boom in the early to mid-18th century through to the poverty-stricken 19th century, when French silk imports had decimated the English silk trade and the weavers of Spitalfields lived a desperate, hand to mouth existence.
The idea is that you follow the family’s fortunes through the generations, the sights, smells and sounds of the house. You see each room as you’d just interrupted the family, though they can still sometimes be heard, but never seen. In this case, we experienced Christmas as the family would have done through time, as their fortunes diminished. “A rare thing to experience first hand: the warm, smoky light captured by the Old Masters: the creak of footsteps on wood; whispers and opening doors; arresting reflections, mixtures, textures and smells; the ticking and chiming of clocks; a cat and a canary.”
Sever called it a ‘still life drama’, a kind of unique theatrical experience in which you’re invited to time travel, “to enter its door is to pass through a frame into a painting, one with a time and life of its own,” the “art” changing year round to reflect the season.
We walked around in candlelight at Christmas time, but it’s open all year round, so here are a few photos of what it looks like during the rest of the year, in the day time…
Dennis Severs’ house is open for various tours and experiences year-round, with the popular Christmas installation open each year from the end of November. So if you’re in London any time soon, or like to plan ahead, I highly recommend taking one of the intriguing ‘Silent Night’ tours to get you in the Christmas mood.