You enter the crime scene by appointment only. You may not need to knock; the door glides open on your approach and as your credentials are checked you’re reminded of the necessity to maintain the silence, leave no trace, disturb nothing, to only use your senses and memory, not your fingers, to interrogate the evidence.
Ten rooms. A vortex. Ten time zones co-existing in immediate proximity to each other. Ten occasions when the residents have dematerialised leaving their meals, their refreshments, their chores, their indulgences, their pastimes, their disputations, their business, incomplete. Alien abduction, Mulder? It’s the Mary Celeste, Scully, run aground and beached in Spitalfields. Meg Whitechapel the only witness, and she’s not talking any time soon.
Illuminated only by candles, heated only by log and coal fires, it appears that the residents have just left the room. But is that a soft footstep behind this door? A suppressed cough from that dark cellar corner? No, just the sound of horse drawn carts passing over the cobbles of Folgate Street. Your imagination fills in the missing spaces so afterwards it’s unclear as to what we have seen and heard, and what we might have seen or heard.
18 Folgate Street, Dennis Severs’ House, is a London peculiar, a phenomenon that defies easy categorisation. Dennis Severs (born 1948, died 1999) moved into the derelict property in 1979 and recreated elements of the lives of the previous inhabitants of the building at intervals between 1725 and 1920. The houses in this part of London were built during the 1720s and were slightly more grand than might have been expected for the area. Folgate Street is at the heart of the ancient Liberty of Norton Folgate, an administrative no-man’s land outside, at that time, of the powers of local government. The houses were planned to attract wealthy Huguenot families that had settled in the area after leaving France to escape persecution following the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. The Huguenots were French Protestants and about 250,000 of them left rather than be forcibly converted to Catholicism. Many of the Huguenots were skilled and educated professionals and merchants and encouraged by the Government of the day, with cash, to settle in Britain. It’s estimated that over 50,000 came to England, mainly settling in London and Canterbury, and they were largely responsible for the establishment of Spitalfields as a centre for the silk weaving industry. That they were able to reside in a small community outside the reach of basic state agencies must have held an attraction.
Severs imagined one of these families settling into 18 Folgate Street. It would have been a comfortable bourgeois home in a community of Huguenot exiles. Each room is presented as a dynamic, living space as it might have been at a particular moment. The fictional Gervaise family, anglicising their name to Jervis, are a presence, but never present. Meals are in preparation, with rabbits to be skinned and the earthy smell of carrots, brassicas and onions from the vegetable basket. Afternoon tea has been hastily abandoned with a broken cup and saucer on the floor. Spectacles are neatly folded across the prayer book open at the devotions for the day. An overturned chair and wine glasses suggest an interrupted angry outburst that is mirrored in the Hogarth painting above the mantelpiece. Beds are roughly unmade as the occupants fled at our approach. Who didn’t wish to be caught in flagrante?
The prosperity enjoyed by the family would have declined by the beginning of the 19th century as the silk weaving business in London steadily declined, and on the top floor we encounter the dawn of the Victorian era. The sombre tolling of church bells mourning the death of William IV, and the gun salutes from an artillery battery can be heard as we gaze upon a scene that could have inspired Charles Dickens, whose portrait gazes down on a tall clerk’s desk and stool, quills and ledgers, and a line of battered books along the windowsill, a rocking chair and child’s chair beside the fire. It seems very cold, and the meagre heating arrangements do little to improve the environment. The décor has faded from its prime some fifty or so years earlier and the candles barely penetrate the gloom. The bedroom next door is spartan and you can anticipate a time fifty years into the future when a whole family might be living in a space that size elsewhere in Spitalfields or Whitechapel.
We leave the house at the time of the first world war, in the parlour where the mantle-piece is crammed with postcard and memorabilia, there’s discarded bunting from what? – The coronation of George V in 1911? Unionist opposition to the Irish Home Rule Bill in 1914? Armistice Day in 1917? Some other event? The mystery remains, compounded by an anachronistic in memorium card and what might be Dennis’ discarded baseball cap.
Severs described his achievement as a ‘still-life drama’ with the caveat, ‘you either see it, or you don’t.’ In reality, it’s an overachievement. You can’t see as much as is there is to be seen because your gaze is finite. However, if the gaze is finite, your imagination is infinite. Your mind rushes to fill the spaces it perceives. And that’s the paradox. Do we see what Dennis has placed before us, or do we see what we bring to the experience, what we expect to see? If we are Crime Scene Investigators then we must proceed on the basis of what we see before us, despite the half-light, despite the gloom, despite the absence of witnesses. If only they offered a season ticket ….
(All photos by Roelof Bakker, used with permission of Dennis Severs’ House.)