Dennis Severs’ Menagerie
Try as he might, all Dennis Severs’ attempts to teach tap dancing to his cat Madge were met with stubborn resistance. Unsurprisingly, the cat was eager to preserve the dignity of its species and so the wayward creature refused to co-operate.
“Aren’t you a disappointment to me, Madge?” Dennis Severs used to say – in that affectionate yet imperious way of his – to the impassive feline. Because, as you can appreciate, once he had created his eighteenth century time capsule house at 18 Folgate St, banishing the modern world successfully and opening it to the public for tours by candlelight, a tap-dancing cat would have been the final flourish. But in spite of this minor setback, animals played a vital part in Dennis Severs’ vision, instrumental in his strategies to bring the past alive for the present day.
Before he came to Spitalfields, Dennis Severs ran tours in the nineteen seventies for wealthy Americans around Chelsea, transporting them back in time in a horsedrawn carriage. “That was when Dennis found his ability to tell stories,” explained David Milne, curator at Dennis Severs’ House, when I joined him and Mick Pedroli, house manager, to discuss Dennis Severs and his animals.“When he first moved here, he arrived in his horse and carriage,” added David.
Buying the house was an evolution in Dennis Severs’ ideas that gave him the opportunity to create a fantasy environment to transport visitors imaginatively, and it was a vision in which cats and canaries had their own roles to play. Like many of the houses in Spitalfields built directly onto the earth, 18 Folgate St has mice coming up through the floor and Dennis Severs got a cat to keep them at bay, just as the inhabitants of these dwellings have done for centuries. He christened the scruffy black kitten Whitechapel although it was always known as Madge. A mysterious nickname of which the significance was only revealed years later when Dennis was confined to a wheelchair and beckoned to David who was serving as his footman at the time. Expecting some profound revelation, David heard Dennis whisper, “Madge is for Majesty…”
The Huguenot weavers in Spitalfields had the custom of keeping canaries, and Dennis Severs got his from the Club Row animal market in 1979. He hung the cages on the shutters in Folgate St until a kestrel nesting on Christ Church savaged one of the birds through the bars. “There’s always been canaries here until this year when the last one died, Mr D’Arcy,” said Mick wistfully, admitting,“We cremate them in the kitchen. We put on Verdi’s Requiem and hold hands by the fire.” “They go in the coals and we like to see them consumed,” added David with morbid delight,“They burn spectacularly.” It might sound callous if you did not know that David also wishes to be cremated upon an open pyre when he dies. “We’re going to get pair of boy finches,” he announced cheerfully, to dispel the brief moment of gloom, “The boys are the most beautiful and they sing the best.”
Madge, Dennis Severs’ first cat, ate rat poison and died of kidney failure in 1991, but she became the founder of a dynasty, followed in 1993 by an identical black cat also named Madge. But maybe because he was so attached to his first cat or maybe because she refused his entreaties to dance, Dennis was less involved with the second Madge. So in 1995, when Mick Pedroli moved into the house, he took pity upon her. “She lived in a big dark house with a black coat on and so she often got stepped on which made her nervous,” confessed Mick with a sympathetic smile,“I was able to give her affection and she slept on my bed. Then at one point she stopped eating. We thought she had a chicken bone in her throat but she was diagnosed with cancer. It was very sad, I brought her a white rose and stayed with her till she died.”
Madge’s third incarnation stalks the house today and the ashes of the second sit in a casket in the Victorian parlour. “It took me a year to get a new one,” confided Mick, with significant nod to David, “He refused to have a new one until a period of mourning had passed. Then one day I called a pet shop and she was the grumpiest one that ran to me from the litter. She was a little bitch.” “A minx!” interpolated David. “She hated David,” revealed Mick, raising his eyebrows. “She hissed at me,” David informed me with barely concealed delight. “She came from a farm in Somerset,” said Mick turning lyrical in defence of Madge, “She is a country girl. So it was a bit of a shock for her. She likes going out for long walks. She climbs up the creepers onto the roof , waits for the birds to come into the back yard, and sometimes she falls from the sky and lands on her four feet. I find I have to invite her inside when the house is opening for visitors and I say, ‘Madge we need to work,’ and I always introduce her to guests because she is such a feature. Yet even so, I quite often hear shrieks when she appears unexpectedly from a dark corner.”
More than ten years after Dennis Severs died of Aids in 1999 at the age of fifty-one, the cats and canaries have kept the show running like successive performers in a long running West End hit, even though none ever mastered the art of tap dancing. He recognised that these living elements bring a space alive by drawing an emotional recognition from us, because we respond to their unselfconscious helpless natures that mirror our own vulnerability. And in spite of their short life spans, they are a constant, linking us back to Dennis Severs and beyond, to all those people whose ways of life are manifested in the rooms of his extraordinary house at 18 Folgate St.
Dennis Severs when he gave tours in his open-top landau, 1977.
Mr D’Arcy, the canary in the dining room window at 18 Folgate St. (Photo by Jane Watt)
A wise old bird (Photo by Jim Howett)
The canary’s cage hung out in the street on Summer days until a kestrel savaged one through the bars.
Dennis with his first cat that ate rat poison and died.
The second Madge dozes on the staircase, her ashes are preserved in a casket in the Victorian parlour.
The current Madge demonstrates her skill learnt on the farm in Somerset.
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