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The Renewal Of Dennis Severs’ House

July 28, 2021
by the gentle author

Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields has been closed for the past year but, behind the scenes, a small army has been working to renew the house for reopening this week. Lucinda Douglas Menzies did their portraits.

The piece of promenade theatre I have created, as a re-imagination of the tours that Dennis Severs gave in the eighties, commences this Thursday 29th July and booking is open until the end of November.

Click here to book tickets

Gilbert Bastien, Clock Specialist

“I love the finesse of this French clock and it’s my favourite at Dennis Severs’ House. I love taking an old clock that has not being cleaned for many years and bringing it back to life as it would have been in the eighteenth century. There are a variety of clocks in the house and they are all different – a French clock, an American clock, a lantern clock and a nice grandfather clock dating from 1720. In Dennis Severs’ House, it is as if time stood still.” 

Luis Buitrago, Gardener

“In Spitalfields the gardens are micro-climates that are shady and very sheltered. The challenge for a gardener is the lack of light, but there is scope for plants that like shade and humidity. Dennis Severs had an urn as the central feature, so I introduced these huge ferns. Dennis was all about drama. I am not sure how knowledgeable he was about horticulture but if he had chosen a plant, it would have been one with drama – not something you feel indifferent about.”

Dan Cruickshank, Friend of Dennis Severs & Trustee

“Dennis believed you have to be open-minded and ‘innocent’ to really see the world he created, which is a powerful evocation of the past rather than an attempt at its literal recreation. As he said, ‘you either see it or you don’t’, and over twenty years after Dennis Severs’ death his house continues to weave its spell and remains a place where – invisible to sceptics – ghosts walk in splendid array.”

Pia Frankcom, Copper Plate Calligrapher

“Over the winter, I have been doing copper plate calligraphy for the house. A few years ago, I taught myself at home, it’s almost like meditation for me. This house is very different to any other because it has so much atmosphere and is entirely authentic. Working here, I have heard stories about Dennis Severs and it has become a more personal experience for me. The more I have learnt the more interesting it has grown and it has become a great pleasure to do things for the house.”

Johannna Garrad, Fabric Specialist

“I’ve been cleaning and dressing fabrics – all the drapery, curtains, beds and pieces of costume. Many drapes had fallen down and it was often a puzzle to rehang something that had once been hung up in a haphazard fashion yet to magnificent effect. We looked at photos of how the rooms evolved over the decades to guide us. I was fascinated by the degree to which the house is not a museum collection but a theatre set, and we needed to be aware of that theatricality when we put things back.”

Ian Harper, Wood Grainer & Marbling

“I remember gilding ornaments for Dennis in the eighties, while he lectured me and we even discussed me painting his portrait. Recently, I wood-grained cupboards in the basement and restored the painted floor. Spitalfields has been consistently in my life because I keep coming back to work here. You would think there wasn’t anything left to paint after all these years, but whenever I walk down the street, people ask ‘Will you come and do something for me.’”

Jim Howett, Designer

“Dennis Severs knocked upon the door one day and said he’d just bought a house round the corner, I thought he was crazy but I helped him set it up. I made the shutters and I copied the fireplace from one in Princelet Street. The damp and decay in the paupers’ attic has always been a remarkable feature and Dennis added to it with fungus retrieved from dead wood in Brompton Cemetery, and asked me to fit it into place. Over the years, I have added pieces as some have fallen away.” 

David Milne, Steward

“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, though I am also a very taxing master – because everything has to be right. When you live with candlelight, you learn how to use it. 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.”

Heloise Palin, Administrator

“With its constantly changing light, this house has a life of its own. You walk down a staircase and spot something you have never seen before, because the sun is in a different place. I have been working here on my own a lot which is quite a weird experience, when there is no light or heating, especially in the middle of winter. People ask if it’s spooky or creepy but I’ve not found that, I have grown to love it.”

Wioletta Ruczynska, Cleaner

“When I first came here a year ago, I didn’t know where to start. There were cobwebs everywhere and few centimetres of dust over everything – we had to remove that to see what was underneath. The house is much cleaner now and a lot of things have been repaired to bring them back to life. This is such a beautiful house that it deserves to be taken care of, so visitors can come and see how people lived hundreds of years ago. ”

Joel Saxon, Actor

“It’s a magical experience, bringing the house to life as Dennis Severs intended it to be seen. I hope the tour will inspire visitors and spark their imaginations, I want them to feel we are pulling them through the picture frame and into the eighteenth century. For an actor, this is much more intimate than performing to an audience in a theatre because you get to look into the whites of their eyes and communicate directly. People come to be entertained and, with an audience limited to six, you get a lovely opportunity to connect with each person individually.”

Orlando Spurling, Painter & Plasterer

“Over the years I have patched bits and pieces of Dennis Severs’ House. It’s finishing I do, the plastering and the painting. It’s lime plaster I use, I learnt on the job. I fell into it twenty-five years ago while helping renovate a derelict house in Brushfield Street. I don’t use rollers or sprays in Georgian houses. I prefer old houses. I love the history and character, it makes you wonder who’s been there before you. You get a sense that people have lived there and had a life and moved on. It’s like a continuous living thing and it gives me real satisfaction to repair something to bring it more life.”

Photographs copyright © Lucinda Douglas Menzies

You may also like to read about

Dennis Severs’ Menagerie

Isabelle Barker’s Hat

Simon Pettet’s Tiles

The House of Silence

21 Responses leave one →
  1. Jayne permalink
    July 28, 2021

    So fascinating to see the many people and roles behind this careful restoration. I love Dennis Severs’ house, been a few times pre-pandemic, and the haunting theatricality is always majestic, as is the suspension of time. Good luck with the reopening.

  2. Peter Hart permalink
    July 28, 2021

    Amazing. Credit to all involved. Thank you.

  3. Jane Clouston permalink
    July 28, 2021

    Absolutely love what everyone is doing to revive this beautiful piece of History In Spittalfields
    Thank you for the photography..
    Kind Regards from New Zealand
    Jane x

  4. Dianne permalink
    July 28, 2021

    Thank you so much for this series. Because of you we visited the house in 2016 and would just love to see it in its reincarnation. Sadly, as we live in Australia and the likelihood of us travelling in the near future is unlikely, another visit is in the lap of the Gods! It would be wonderful if a documentary could be made on the house including the new theatrical presentation.

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 28, 2021

    Yes – good luck with the re-opening but where was your portrait?? I know how much work you have put into re-imagining the tour so you should have your rightful place amongst the rest of the team (even if you were only represented by a shadow, or even a hat…!)

    But these are brilliant portraits which really capture the ambience of a very special house, and show just how much work and how many different skill sets are involved in bringing it back to life.

    Looking forward to my tour experience in August.

  6. Paul Dyson permalink
    July 28, 2021

    Dear David , So good to see everything being cared for so well and imaginatively. Denis would be so pleased and proud, good luck with the reopening . I must book an evening but will wait for wintertime as I think the light is better ,
    Yours, Paul D

  7. July 28, 2021

    It is wonderful to look at. This conservation work is incredibly exciting. In another life, I would love to do this too!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  8. Richard Smith permalink
    July 28, 2021

    I must visit! The house looks incredible. Congratulations to everyone involved!

  9. Annie S permalink
    July 28, 2021

    I’ve been enjoying your posts on Dennis Severs, thank you. These people are doing an amazing job!
    I’d been meaning to visit the house for a long while and not got round to it but I’ve booked my ticket now – really looking forward to seeing everything.

  10. July 28, 2021

    “It takes a village………”, including creative dedicated people, to bring forth this theatrical
    Event. (Yes, the house is a location — but I prefer to think of it as an actual Event.) I loved meeting each of the specialists who are the stewards of Mr. Severs’ vision. The photos are magnificent! — so evocative, personal, and welcoming. I agree — it would have been wonderful to have a photo of GA in the mix. Nonetheless, huzzah and hurrah to EVERY one involved.
    You are doing something valuable, meaningful, and very timely.

    “Adhere to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

  11. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    July 28, 2021

    One thing that all these people involved in restoring the Dennis Severs House to its former glory and mystery hold in common is their genuine love for the work and the house. Although I have never been there, from your articles it is clear that the Dennis Severs House was born of love, vision, and insight, and that the same spirit lives there today. That in itself makes it a very special place. I hope that I will get a chance to see it in person one day.

  12. July 28, 2021

    My wife Janice and I so loved our visit with Dennis back in 2002. Diligently, continue your brillance! Congratulations to all…

  13. Ann V permalink
    July 28, 2021

    I visited Denis Severs’ house a few years ago with my daughter. The atmosphere and everything else about it is simply breath-taking and the memory of it is with me still. With your re-imagining of his tour it will I am sure be simply mind-blowing. What a brilliant team. A visit is now at the top of my bucket list, so fingers crossed I can get to London before too long. Good luck with the re-opening.

  14. gkbowood permalink
    July 28, 2021

    This was an unexpected glimpse behind the scenes of all the people involved. Very interesting and makes me want to come across the pond and see it ASAP! Thank you for keeping it alive.

  15. Heather E. Cole permalink
    July 28, 2021

    Because I’m an unreliable reader, I so often am asking questions of myself, like “WTH is Dennis Severs and what’s up with his house?” — and then I get to go back into the archives and get myself back up to speed. Thank you for a wonderful trip today, and fondest best wishes to the folk who are doing the work!

  16. Amanda permalink
    July 28, 2021

    These exquisitely stunning photos will surely encourage those who have never seen the atmosphere created by a man who has left behind a dream which has not been permitted to fade.

    l found them especially pleasing as each artisan’s attire toned with their setting.
    From Gilbert’s rich plum pullover setting off the ‘Grinling Gibbons’ to Wioletta’s neat paisley pinafore complimenting the red drapes, likewise Heloise welcoming us at the midnight door – both with a teeny glimmer of scarlett.

    My most magical photo for the colour and light is Luis pampering the luminous green fern as though a 17th century nobleman with his horse tethered in the courtyard.

    The personal captions by all the contributors themselves were heartwarming – their skills very much in demand.

    The GA must maintain his mystique, hence no portrait.
    l feel an award is on the cards 👏

  17. Marnie Sweet permalink
    July 28, 2021

    Gentle Author:

    Vignettes so delicious they’re good enough to eat. Heloise is absolutely perfect.

    Thank you for continuing to share beauty some of will never be able to enjoy in person.

    And hello to all your cat friends past and present–especially Mr Pussy and ‘the new guy.’

    Marnie
    Ohio

  18. Margarita permalink
    July 28, 2021

    The next time I visit London, (hopefully some day soon!) a tour in Dennis Servers’ house is on my list of things to do!

    I especially like the idea of going on one of the “silent” tours!

    Thank you Gentle Author, for allowing us to peek inside and to meet the people who are dedicated to this gorgeous project.

    Margarita
    Vancouver, Canada

  19. Valerie permalink
    July 28, 2021

    Magical! Lovely evocativery (if I may coin such a term)…

  20. Lilyami permalink
    July 29, 2021

    This must be my favourite Spitalfields Life post ever, which is saying something. The photographs are wonderful, and the words even better. Just a joy to see and hear. I do hope I can get myself up the road to London again soon, if only to visit the house for real! Thank you, GA, for what you do and what you enable.

  21. Boudicca Fawkes permalink
    July 31, 2021

    Great story and pics a very interesting and informative and you’re pics are so good bravo

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