Magical houses

The other week i went with some friends on the candlelit tour of Dennis Severs’ House . I’m guessing a lot of people won’t have heard of this place – I hadn’t until M told me about it – so let me try and describe it: it’s like a cross between a time capsule, a three-dimensional still life, a junk shop, a museum and the story of a fictional Huguenot family who (we are meant to imagine) lived in the house in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. In other words, it is a lot of things – or tries to be a lot of things – all at once. And therein lies the problem: it tries too hard.

Walking around the house we were struck by the fact that, as impressive as the spectacle often was visually, it rarely succeeded in being immersive. You couldn’t fully enter into the illusion of the Huguenots’ ghostly presence, for example, because the composition of the rooms as ‘artworks’ belied any idea of them being actually inhabited by ‘ordinary folk’. Art is self-conscious in a way everyday life is not. The sounds and odours, which i’d imagined would be so effective in creating an atmosphere, just couldn’t overcome this self-consciousness. Even worse were the little notes on display in most of the rooms, which alternated between warning you not to touch (as though visitors were anticipated to be in the throes of dementia, incapable of remembering this rule from room to room) and asking you if you’d “got” it yet. What we got was irritated. It was as though the guardians of the house (a glum-faced lot it has to be said), despite all their assertions to the contrary, lacked conviction that the house itself would be enough. And so they kept on intruding, reminding you of the magic you were supposed to be experiencing.

You can already sense this if you read the blurb on the website. The tone is one of breathless admiration – ostensibly for Dennis Severs and his creation but in reality for the experience they are offering you. Quite an odd idea – like the actor writing his own review. Responsibility for enjoyment is transferred to the visitor: there is no possibility of the house being less than its custodians claim; only of you being less than you might wish. Apart from being patronising this is also a cop out. As it happens there are lots of reasons why the experience might not take. Some of them i’ve described above but there are others: your mood on the day plays a part for example. Then there’s the number of other people present. I’d imagined there would be just our party and perhaps one other small group. Had this been the case then i think the experience would have been far more atmospheric: ‘ghosts’ need silence and space. As it was, i was as conscious of the other visitors as i was of the house. Only when i finally got free of them, in the attic, could i really appreciate the power the house had.

This isn’t to say i didn’t enjoy the evening. Some of the rooms, especially upstairs, are beautiful. I loved the lady’s bedroom which reminded me of a set from a period drama. The decoration on the wall – i don’t know what you call it but it’s a sort of arrangement of china ledges – was gorgeous; and the moment when i glanced through the four poster bed and spotted a brass monkey clinging to the bell cord was thrilling. Likewise, the arrangement of jellied fruits (petit fours?) on one of the landings. I stood and gazed at it for maybe ten minutes; the colours and the candlelight were magical. Then there was the attic which i’ve mentioned above. All you hear as you stand within it is the relentless tolling of a cannon somewhere in the city. The king is dead. I believed it.

Still, i can’t help remembering another “imagined house” that i visited some years ago which affected me far more deeply. It was the Sherlock Holmes Museum – a ‘recreation’ of the house at which Holmes and Watson lived at 221b Baker Street. I went there on a whim after reading a collection of Conan Doyle’s short stories and wasn’t really expecting anything special. As it was i was captivated. Despite knowing that Holmes was a fictional character i found myself looking at the rooms and wondering how he had found them. ‘They’re much smaller than i expected. Didn’t he find them claustrophobic?’ I looked at the needles and syringes in a box and imagined Holmes using them to inject opium. I looked at the violin and imagined Holmes playing it. I looked at the bed upstairs and imagined Holmes sleeping in it. ‘God, it’s narrow.’

Precisely because it never asked me to believe in it the house allowed me to do so. Its lack of self-consciousness made it seem authentic and so did its sometimes chaotic nature (I wondered how Holmes had ever found anything!). That’s not to say that it felt like Holmes had just walked out of the room. It felt instead as if in gathering up so many of his ‘possessions’ and returning them ‘home’ the curators had summoned up his presence from ‘the dead’. A spooky feeling! Even the tacky souvenir shop on the ground floor couldn’t break the spell. Would the house have the same effect a second time? I don’t know and i’ve never cared to find out. As i’ve said above, there are so many factors that can affect how you experience a place. The Sherlock Holmes Museum may have been all the things i describe but still – in another mood for instance – it might not have come alive for me.

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5 thoughts on “Magical houses

  1. Eyoki—I enjoyed your account of the Severs house. There’s an interesting take on it (which you may have seen) by Iain Sinclair in the book “Rodinski’s Room” (pp.8-11). The book, like the house, is a little over the top, but fun to read. Bill Bridges

    • No, i’ve never seen it but i’ll have a look for it. I’d be very interested to know what other people made of the place.

  2. I thought this was a really good review of the house. As we’ve already said this house has plenty of good ideas, but hasn’t kept up with the more modern exhibitions presented in other houses elsewhere.
    The trouble for me is that the Severs’ House was over hyped and never it quite lived up to its press. That was part of its problem; it was “too full of god intentions” and lacked Dennis Severs’ actual presence; which may have given the house some warmth. The staff who currently present the house to the visitors have no idea what warmth and hospitality is!

    Your liked your comparison with Baker Street, I’ve been there and think what you said was about right.

    The experience did leave me wondering two things though, as follows:
    Firstly, I wondered if virtual installations of each of the rooms could be presented on the internet, so you could place an avatar of yourself in the scenes. Then allow yourself to virtually walk around the rooms alone (without other people distractingly walking about in the background). The idea being that when you visited the real house the staff could give you a unique passkey that would let you into the virtual site once you got home and this would at least allow people to play with Dennis Severs’ concept. They could even develop more sound effects and stuff too or even extend the drama.
    Furthermore, they could extend the concept to enable virtual avatars of the houses characters to join you in each room and interact with you a little if you wanted.

    Secondly, I was left wondering what kind of a mad Dennis was like in real life – If indeed he had a ‘real’ life?

    Anyway, when all is said and done I enjoyed the evening anyway as ‘the company’ was excellent!

    • Your virtual installation idea is brilliant, although you obviously would lose the smell dimension of the experience. I like the idea of the avatars, although i’m not sure how it would work out in practice. As i’ve said elsewhere, actors are rarely convincing as people from the past when seen close up. They have something too modern about them (don’t smell foul enough? teeth too good? hair too clean? too PC?).

      I haven’t been able to find out much about Dennis Severs himself.

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