David Milne, Dennis Severs’ House
Once upon a time, David Milne used to arrange all the old things from his parents’ house in the attic of their home to create his own world of play. David is pictured here in the attic of Dennis Severs’ House in Folgate St where today, as curator of the house, it is his job to arrange things – both in the general sense of maintaining every aspect of the property and also in the specific sense of arranging all the myriad objects that fill these crowded rooms.
Yet the success of David’s arrangements renders his labour invisible, since when you come upon the artifacts occupying these rooms, everything appears to have occurred naturally in the course of the daily life of the fictional inhabitants. But very little is accidental in this house of mysteries, because everything has been arranged to tell a story, and making those arrangements is David’s tour de force and his life’s passion too.
“I think I have a good understanding of what the life of a servant must have been like, except I am the servant to an imaginary family,” David confided to me after years of cleaning and polishing. Widening his eyes significantly as he revealed his qualification, “though I am a very taxing master – because everything has to be right.” and underlining the statement with such a stern glance that I almost felt pity for him, suffering such an exacting scrupulous employer.
I recognised the glance from when David instructed me to hold silence upon my arrival at the house, when I came to visit during a public opening. It was a look of such gravity that it ensured silence reigned throughout the property, no-one dared utter a word in the face of such an authoritative visage. Yet this hauteur only serves to emphasise the unexpected radiance of his smile when you greet him off duty, because the evocation of fantasy at 18 Folgate St is a serious business and David understands his dignified responsibility to set a certain tone whilst at work. It is an onerous duty that magistrates, members of the clergy, footmen and the guards at Buckingham Palace will recognise, and one which David has perfected to an art.
David discovered 18 Folgate St in his early twenties when was exploring London by following the medieval street plan and he came upon Norton Folgate while walking up through Shoreditch. He peered through the lattice-work of the dining window and spied the baroque interior. “Spitalfields at that time was dark and faded, as if the eighteenth century inhabitants had simply locked their doors and gone, and because I had seen into one of the houses, my imagination created the stories in all the others.” he told me, recalling the moment with delight.
With characteristic rigor, David decided that he would never pay to visit the house, because he knew at once that his involvement had to be more than a tour. Fortuitously, years later, he was invited to a party in the East End and found himself back outside 18 Folgate St. As he explained to me, “I came into this house, walked up to the first floor where Dennis Severs was sitting in the Smoking Room holding court with his circle of friends, and I asked him, ‘Whose house is it?’ and he said, ‘It’s mine!’ And from that moment we were friends, speaking on the telephone every day until two weeks before his death. I never came to this house to strip it down, I never asked questions, I never asked ‘Why?’ I just accepted it as his beautiful creation.”
David lives in a tiny modern flat built upon the roof of a Victorian stucco mansion block in Earls Court, that he has furnished with seventeenth century furniture and lit entirely by candlelight – like a cabinet of curiosities – existing in a manner that is completely in tune with the ambience of Folgate St. “When you live with candlelight, you learn how to use it.” David told me, “You don’t arrange your candles evenly in the room and all at the same height, as people commonly do. You place them strategically. For example, in the kitchen here, there is a low candle on the table where the cook was studying a recipe book. I like to place things together in the manner of ‘still life’ and I love the light of seventeenth century paintings, you see it everywhere in this house.”
I realised how unusual it was for David to sit and talk, because his job consists primarily of housework, revealed by the long apron that is his professional uniform. All four storeys, staircases and rooms, are cleaned twice a week, the silver, brass and copper are polished every fortnight, floors and furniture are waxed annually, bed and table linen are laundered and starched regularly, and dusting is a continuous activity. Additionally, the food is prepared daily, with the master’s breakfast cooked every morning, and tea and coffee freshly brewed. It takes all day, while the house is closed, to prepare it to open for visitors, because even maintaining imaginary inhabitants in the patina to which they have become accustomed takes a lot of work.
As with Mick Pedroli, house manager, David Milne’s involvement in the house is personal, rooted in his friendship with Dennis Severs, which ultimately led to his lifelong commitment to the vision which the house manifests. ”I used to come and stay regularly, and Dennis and I used to play together, cooking meals and taking photographs. I spent twelve Christmases in this house. When Dennis died, I decided to step up and take on the house because it needed people who understand it. Now I am waiting for the right person to walk through the door, one day, who can do my job.” said David, getting lost in thought, gazing fondly around the artfully dilapidated Dickensian attic where he stayed when he first came to visit for weekends at Dennis Severs’ extraordinary house so many years ago, “It’s a story that’s never-ending.”
You may like to read my other stories about Dennis Severs’ house