Mick Pedroli, Dennis Severs' House
The face at the window is Mick Pedroli, house manager at Dennis Severs’ House in Folgate St. In January 1995, when Dennis Severs invited Mick to leave his home town of Amsterdam and come and work here, Mick had never been to the East End of London. But he took a leap of faith and arrived on 3rd March to commence his new job and new life in London, and he has been here ever since.
“I slept in the Dickens room at first,” Mick recalled wryly, referring to a primitively furnished garret in the attic, “but then the roof started leaking, so I moved into the Leckaux room next to it and then that started leaking too. I worked preparing the house during the day and, as it was open to the public every evening, I either had to go out or help Dennis. It was a lonely place to be away from home, living in a dark cold old house – but it was all-consuming too.”
After just a week, Dennis departed for New York, leaving Mick to host the tours and bring order to the management of the house. “I improvised, because I had no idea what to say when visitors asked questions,” Mick confessed to me with the gallant self-deprecatory irony that is his forte, as we sat in the cool of the Victorian parlour surrounded by overstuffed upholstery and a surfeit of bric-a-brac, all enfolded by wallpaper crowded with oppressive roses.
Clearly, Mick’s improvisatory abilities are immense because he stayed the course, playing the role of peacemaker to the mercurial Dennis Severs in his last years and then steering the house forward after Dennis’ death from Aids in 1999, to the present day that sees more visitors through the door each year than ever before. Where once the cultural establishment dismissed Dennis Severs’ House for details of historical inaccuracy, now the tide has changed and it is appreciated for the quality of imagination at play. Today, the National Trust sends curators there to learn how to create atmosphere and evoke the lives of people who once inhabited a historic building.
This was Dennis Severs’ genius, and today Mick, with his colleague David Milne, upholds the endeavour, filling the house every day with spontaneous details, flowers, food and freshly rumpled bed sheets – as if the Jarvises, the family of eighteenth century residents that Dennis Severs invented, had just left a moment ago. So convincing is the evocation that Dennis once fell into a row with a guest who claimed to be descended from the imaginary family in question. It was a spat that met its conclusion when Dennis threw the woman out into Folgate St, and Mick had to apologise and give her money back.
The house is an innately dramatic space and, if you ask him, Mick has a lexicon of tales that he refers to as “the soap opera,” rolling his eyes at all the theatrics he has witnessed over the years. “The first time I had a row with Dennis, I went upstairs to bed and locked my door with a chair because I was scared he might come after me in the night,” admitted Mick – raising his eyebrows – in testament to the force of Severs’ personality, that remains capable of inspiring such loyalty, even in his absence. “They were the best of times. We used to sing together and dance around the house as were preparing for the visitors,” explained Mick with a weary smile, reeling off a list of Dennis Severs’ favourite disco hits, and searching around with his eyes to trace the images that linger in the shadows of these quiet rooms which still harbour the presence of their creator.
Once Dennis became sick, Mick found himself in a role that demanded greater involvement than he ever expected, “It was very difficult time when Dennis changed from being a vibrant person to a fragile ill man over six months. When he discovered his cancer was terminal, he lay down in the bedroom and I held his hand and cried. ‘I so envy you for your tears,’ he said. He was very pragmatic and accepted it. When he was in hospital for extended periods, I had to come in six or seven times a day to empty the buckets collecting the leaks. It was a really dark picture, Dennis’ body eaten away by cancer and the old house leaking.
I was with him when he passed away. He died on the twenty-seventh of December and on the third of January we were open to the public. Then he lay here in state in the dining room, in a coffin lined with red velvet and decorated with black ribbons, for friends to come say ‘goodbye’ before he was taken to Christ Church on the sixth of January. Two hundred people gathered in the street outside as the bells tolled a death knell and we all walked behind the hearse drawn by four black horses.”
The unspoken irony is that in setting out to evoke the life of the past, Dennis Severs created the magnificent scene upon which the drama of his own death would be played out. Today in Dennis Severs’ House, the living and the dead co-exist equally within the eternal present that the house proposes. Through tending the reality of the Jarvises, Mick and his fellow curators have become a parallel family, of those that worked alongside Dennis. Even though the story of Dennis and his circle may be less apparent to the visitor than the fictional Jarvises which the rooms are set up to describe, theirs is a story that deepens an appreciation of the house as an emotional space for the contemplation of the ephemeral poetry of existence.
“The kitchen is my favourite place,” revealed Mick, eyes gleaming with delight,” I think it is the most unpretentious room, soulful and warm, quiet and safe. It doubled as my sitting room when I lived here. On my first New Year’s Eve, we had a big party. Dennis had his A-list friends upstairs in the drawing-room while I had my party downstairs. We had our music and all these people were dancing in the kitchen. It was surreal.” Mick’s choice of room reflects his own egalitarian nature, as the ex-proprietor of a coffee bar in Amsterdam, and fifteen years later, Mick’s perseverance appears to have carried him through the experience that threatened to overtake his life.”Of course, there is a deep emotional involvement here for me,” he conceded with equanimity, before adding, “but it is a job. I have working hours now and I have a life. If I meet people who ask what I do, I say I do admin.” Let me admit I was not entirely persuaded.
Once you open up a dream space, as Dennis Severs did, it can take on a life of its own, drawing everyone into its vortex. He may be dead and lying in his grave, but his imaginative world still flourishes in Folgate St, just waiting to enchant the unwary visitor. When you arrive and Mick Pedroli greets you at the door with a polite invitation to hold silence, he is inducting you as a participant in the drama that Dennis Severs set in motion. There is only one thing to do, take a deep breath and step over the threshold.
Mick enjoys a quiet moment with Madge the house cat.