Hidden away in the East end of London is 18 Folgate Street, an unusual Georgian house renovated by artist Dennis Severs to create a unique journey through 200 years of time.
Visitors walk through the house by candlelight, seeing the rooms as if the inhabitants had just walked out one evening, with the detritus of family life left behind. Combined with sounds and scents, this is an extraordinary experience which takes place in total silence.
In amongst the towering chrome, steel and glass of the vibrant Tower Hamlets in the East End there are a few remaining pockets of old London, where the streets are still cobbled, the brick buildings are worn and faded and the black railings, window shutters and street lighting speak of earlier times. To step away from the crowds, off the busy main roads and into one of these small side streets is to step back in time into an older, calmer London.
It is hard to imagine that this area of London was once mainly rural, laid out with gardens until Georgian housing, including Folgate Street, was built for the Hugenot immigrants in the late 17th century.
Previously home to one of the biggest Medieval hospitals, St. Mary Spital (hence the name Spitalfields), the area has seen its fortunes rise and fall since then, falling into slums for many years until the arrival of the polished chrome tower blocks in recent years.
So much has been demolished in the name of progress, but a few patches of architectural resistance remain, and Folgate Street is one of them.
In 1979, long before the recent gentrification began, Folgate Street was in a very run down area of London, dilapidated, disintegrating and populated by bohemians and artists. Dennis Severs was an American artist who moved to London in the search for ‘English light’. He bought 18, Folgate Street and started on an ambitious refurbishment, doing up each of the rooms to represent a different time period from 1725 – 1919.
He created a narrative, that of the fictional Jervis family, Hugenot silk weavers who lived there in varying stages of affluence over the generations. He wasn’t just trying to create a museum piece however, but a living multi-dimensional work of art; a still life where you can believe that the family have literally just stepped outside while you explore their home, seeing the letters left on the sideboard, the half-eaten biscuits, the ear rings casually discarded on the table, the unmade bed.
Sounds of horse drawn carriages clopping by, the scent of the rosemary drying by the kitchen window, the aroma of Mrs Jervis’ favourite blend of tea all combine to make this a true feast for the senses and a labour of love for their creator.
Dennis Severs worked on his house until his early death in 1999, and the house was left to the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, who now maintain and run his house for visitors.
Three evenings a week they run the Silent Night Tour, where you can book to visit the house in the evening, when darkness has fallen and the house is illuminated only by candles, firelight and gas lamps. All visitors are expected to uphold complete silence throughout their visit to preserve the atmosphere and minimise distraction.
As someone who loves not only history but ‘experiences’, a visit here has long been on my bucket list. I took my 11 year old son with me, having emailed first to ensure it was suitable for children. The reply was that he was the perfect age and in fact there is no minimum age limit, it all depends on the child. So if you know that your child can stay quiet throughout, they will be welcome. I was also recommended a children’s book, The Marvels by Brian Selznick, which I duly ordered from Amazon before we went. A massive gilt edged tome, it starts with an illustrated story about the Marvel family, followed by a story about the house and its creator, which was enough to whet our appetites about what lay ahead.
You arrive outside the house at the allotted time, have your names checked off and are given a short speech about the house, as well as a reminder to stay silent and not to take any photographs. The door is then opened and with instructions to start at the bottom of the house, you enter the dark passageway and start the experience.
Your immediate impression is one of darkness and gloom, as you tread down the creaky wooden stairs to the cellar. After a while your eyes adjust to the darkness and details begin to emerge.
The low ceilinged basement kitchen is warm and cosy with a black leaded stove, a fire in the grate and kettles just off the boil. The table is covered with cake ingredients such as sugar, flour, dried fruit and the strong scent of cinnamon. The floorboards are bare, the heavy oak dresser is stacked with crockery, chairs are pulled up to the fire, a maid’s cap is casually flung onto the corner of one of them.
Next door is the cellar, clearly used as a store room and heavy with cobwebs, dust and grime. The cast offs of family life are stacked in a corner, barely visible in the gloom, as a single lantern illuminates a pile of excavated rubble. A sign tells us that here are also the remains of the original hospital, built in 1197.
Back upstairs you enter the family rooms of the house. A dining room with the table covered in dirty plates, chairs pushed back, a napkin on the floor, half-drunk glasses of wine, a clock ticking loudly in the background.
The journey continues through the rooms, each with its own sounds, scents and visual excess. Every surface available, every corner has something to look at, some clue about the lives lived in here, with antique portraits of the fictional lives you’re scrutinising all looking down on you from above.
The candlelight keeps everything half hidden from you, the wording on the letters is hard to read and the shadows bounce around the room hiding more than they show. The glint of the candlesticks and the lustre of the golden frames contrast with the dark depths of the oak panelling that covers every wall, the play between light and dark keeping more hidden than it reveals.
Inside the Smoking Room a note told us this room was a painting come to life, that of the Hogarth-esque painting over the fire, (possibly the Gambling Scene from Hogarths ‘The Rakes Progress’, it was too dark to see clearly.)
This was very much a man’s room where chairs were knocked over, cards were strewn about the place, the smell of tobacco and alcohol pervaded, this room had seen some ribald activity and as Dennis Severs intended, shows ‘the practical disadvantages of all male extremes’. In one corner was a curtained off area that housed Mr Jervis’s wigs, powder and accoutrements; a small fragment that told us of the wealth and refinement that the family had reached.
Mrs Jervis bedroom revealed an ornate four poster bed with rumpled sheets, written letters on the mantel hinting at what goes on behind closed doors, cast off jewellery, the lingering smell of perfume, untidy chairs and a broken tea cup. A note told us that ‘some people can guess her mood by the position of the chairs’ and you start to inspect everything thoroughly under the steely gaze from her portrait – what had been going on in there?
These rooms, with their focus on the wealthy, early generations of the family, show us life for the affluent, the pursuits of people with time and refinement. The subtle shift from the Baroque, to the Rococo, to Neo Classicism is the backdrop to the lives of the people that lived here, to the hats and wigs flung off, people spending their own time away from their public lives. We are not told of their professional accomplishments, this is a focus on the private, the hidden and the intimate.
On the top floor we reach the later generations of the Jervis family, or of their lodgers, it’s not quite clear. Here are the signs of early 19th century abject poverty, threadbare laundry draped from on high, minimal candles that leave everything in a deep gloom, pillows at both ends of the bed showing that the residents sleep top to tail. The walls are decorated with yellowing theatre bills and rules of the house written by the landlady.
There are references to Dickensian poverty everywhere – in one corner was a battered writing desk resembling the one people associate with Scrooge, there is a small chair and a set of crutches for Tiny Tim, the chains of Marley’s ghost by the door.
A note told us that the family had gone out to join the crowds thronging at the news of the death of King William in 1819, and the sounds of canons signalling the death can be heard in the background. Times were hard, poverty was rampant, but we are told it was also a time of optimism in the form of the young Queen Victoria who had just ascended the throne, giving hope to her subjects that things would change. As the ceiling is peeling, the damp and rot is evident, you can only hope that the family fortunes do improve.
The final room is back downstairs, an overly cluttered sitting room which is festooned with photographs, mostly of an older Queen Victoria and family, showing us the passage of time from the poverty of the attic rooms. This room looked to me much like an elderly spinster’s sitting room with its fussy, floral wallpaper, coronation mugs and flags.
Knick knacks, lace and busts were everywhere; this to me was the room of an old lady and her memories. The clutter is deliberate and constant; there is even a souvenir wedding mug for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on display, a room of cheap bric-a-brac and remembrances that doesn’t stop growing.
It was then time to leave the silent house and head back to our Georgian hotel with all its mod cons. Emerging back onto Folgate Street to see the intrusive chrome buildings towering above you from the end of the road feels like time travel, a harsh and unwelcome jolt back to reality.
Feeling elated and unable to stop talking about what we had seen, it was only ten minutes later that I sat down to record our impressions and yet we struggled to remember the details. There had been just so much to see, so much to think about, that much of it had become lost already. The darkness had kept much hidden from us, shapes had appeared and vanished back into the shadows without us really knowing what they were, we were both left with a lot of half formed memories.
We had noticed different things though – I was very impressed that my son had noticed how there were loads of candles in the ‘rich rooms’ with plenty of spares, but in the poverty stricken attic there had only been a single candle. He had noticed the discarded walnut shells around the fireplace, the empty birdcages in each room, I had noticed that some of the mirrors were so old that they did not show you your reflection, which was slightly disturbing but also perhaps indicative of this visit not being about you, you are a voyeur not a participant.
It was mos