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London Lore at Dennis Severs’ House

June 5, 2013
by the gentle author

Mysterious forces are at work at the former Empire Pipe Factory in Hoxton where sculptor Richard Sharples is contriving boxes that contain moving figures and even apparitions – conjuring the world of mythology and superstition, and ensnaring it like a genie in a bottle, just so that you may enjoy the opportunity of sticking your nose in and taking a peek. These are the preparations for the London Lore exhibition by the Museum of British Folklore at Dennis Severs House in Folgate St which opens on Friday 14th June.

Once a familiar sight upon the London street, Peep Shows or Raree Boxes manned by itinerant performers were recorded in the capital as early as the fifteenth century. In the days before cinema, those in search of innocent entertainment could pay a penny to peer through the peep hole and be transported by the vision beyond, either of a newsworthy event or a royal occasion, or a celebrated scene from fiction. By pulling strings to move scenery and opening slits in the box to admit light, the shimmering mirage appeared to animate with its own life, while the attendant read a description elucidating the meaning of the spectacle thus revealed.

In a similar vein, the boxes placed in each of the rooms at Dennis Severs’ House will dramatise the customs, characters, rituals and legends of the capital. Mixing history with myth, they include evocations of Spring-Heeled Jack, The Queen’s Remembrancer and Henry Croft, the road-sweeper who founded the Pearly Kings & Queens. You can also expect miniature tableaux of the Fire of London, Doggett’s Coat & Badge Race, the Annual Clowns’ Service in Dalston and the legend of Bleeding Heart Yard. All accompanied by ethereal harmonies created by sound artist Richard J. Lockley-Hobson of the Hauntological Society.

Naturally, the method and the means cannot be revealed here – you must visit Folgate St and take a peek through the lenses into the infinite darkness captured within these boxes to discover for yourself the hallucinations of old London that transmogrify.

A veteran of the Napoleonic war makes his living at Hyde Park corner as Showman in 1812.

From a jigsaw puzzle of the Cries of London, c.1820

French illustration of a mother lifting up her child to peep show, c.1820

Illustration by Eugène Hippolyte Forest, c.1840

The peep show, anonymous oil painting, c. 1840

Delft tile illustrating a peep show, c. 1840

Delft tile illustrating a peep show, c. 1840

Painting of a peep show upon a paper maché cheroot case, c.1860

Cover of American children’s book, 1890.

The Children’s Peep Show, 1890.

Engraving by Harry Tuck, 1894.

Sculptor Richard Sharples, Peep-Show-Maker of Hoxton.

Illustrations of peep shows courtesy Richard Balzer

There are special opening times for London Lore which runs from 14th June – 5th July: Wednesdays & Fridays, noon – 4pm. Normal opening times at Dennis Severs’ House – Sundays, noon – 2pm & Mondays, noon – 2pm. Dennis Severs’ House, Folgate St, E1 6BX

You may also like to read about

Simon Costin, the Museum of British Folklore

and these other stories about Dennis Severs’ House

Dennis Severs’ Menagerie

Mick Pedroli, Manager at Dennis Severs’ House

David Milne, Curator at Dennis Severs’ House

The Story of Isabelle Barker’s Hat

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter Holford permalink
    June 5, 2013

    Some great illustrations of peep shows – they really capture how magical they must have seemed.

  2. Gillian permalink
    June 8, 2013

    One of the images shows a peep show of The Red Barn Murder, which happened in the 1820s in a Suffolk village. There is an exhibition dedicated to the muder and trial in the Moyses Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, containing some rather gruesome artifacts. I can remember seeing them as a child, hardly daring to look. I’ll let you discover them, still on display! There’s a red barn website for those interested.

  3. Andrea Kirkby permalink
    June 17, 2013

    I’ve just got back from India and was lucky enough in Calcutta to meet the journalists at Good News Tab. The publication had recently run a story on the last bioscope operator in Calcutta – a chap who tours cut-down highlights of popular films shown in a portable theatre that is not all that different from some of the peep shows you illustrate here.

    GNT’s website is down, but I did find quite a nice link here:

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