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Scenes From Dennis Severs’ House

December 21, 2021
by the gentle author


Over the past year, it has been my delight to work for the Spitalfields Trust at Dennis Severs’ House, devising the new Dennis Severs’ Tour and rehearsing the actors, Joel Saxon and Lisa D’Agostino who are hosts. Here I present a few vignettes of the life of this celebrated house in Folgate St.


If you would like to visit over the festive period , please check because cancellations mean tickets can become available at short notice


The Dining Room at Christmas

‘Mrs Jervis prefers a roast swan at Christmas. It suits her aristocratic sensibilities as it was a favoured dish in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, particularly when skinned and redressed in its feathers and served with a yellow pepper sauce. Sometimes she serves it stuffed with a series of increasingly smaller birds, in the style of a turducken.

Mature swans have little subcutaneous fat and their flesh is exceedingly dry, making them a tough and entirely unsuitable meat. Consequently, eating an adult plumed swan was more of a statement than a culinary treat. Mrs Jervis chooses a cygnet hatched in June, plump and tender by December, as the perfect Christmas meat – still tender and fatty.’

The kitchen dresser groans under the proliferation of jellies, puddings and pies at this time of year

Lisa D’Agostino has been hosting tours since November

‘At twenty seconds to midnight on 31st of December 1899, the old house holds its breath. Miss Isabel Jervis waits by her fire. She is all alone now. She gazes at Queen Victoria’s portrait and she wonders what the twentieth century will hold. Next morning, when she opens the shutters, the streets are silent and empty.

When Victoria died in the arms of her German grandson, the Kaiser, at Osborne House, the Lord Chamberlain knew what to do. As long as there were remnants of a silk industry in Spitalfields where the fabric of her wedding dress was made, the Queen wished that the black crepe for her funeral pall was woven there too. And it was.’

Joel Saxon has been hosting tours since the house reopened in the summer

‘Now our journey to the heart of the house arrives at the private place that holds its owner by night, the master’s bedchamber. Here society ends and intimacy begins. At the centre of the room stands the grandest upholstered four-poster bed imaginable, hung with braided damask.

Here Edward and Elizabeth Jervis conceived their children. They wedded at Christ Church on 2nd June 1761 and shared this bed throughout their marriage. They were the first generation to do so, for theirs was a love match.’

‘Mrs Jervis wore no underwear, just a shift of fine linen, then silk stockings and garters to hold them up. Next came her stays of whalebone, that we should call a corset, and then her hooped petticoat, also with whalebone and cross ties to maintain the oval shape of the dress and not allow it to become circular. Finally, Mrs Jervis could put on her dress, which came in three pieces, first the skirt, then the stomacher followed by the bodice. There were no hooks or buttons to hold it all together, so pins would be used and a few discreet stitches where necessary. As a finishing touch, lace sleeve ruffles were added and a lappet upon her head. Shoes and a fan completed the outfit.’

‘Here we enter the boudoir – a powerfully feminine space where fresh, soft colours prevail. The room is as warm as toast. A newly installed hob grate has been fitted to the fire to accommodate coal and it burns more efficiently than ever before. The ladies are halfway down the stairs, but their chairs are still warm and their tea is still steaming in their cups. The chairs encourage a more relaxed posture and the daybed offers an unspoken invitation to recline. How tempting it is to remove our shoes? Just in from the past, we are more than glad to meet such comfort.’

‘Admire Mr Jervis’ punchbowl – ‘punch’ is the Hindu word for five which is why there are always five ingredients. Oddly enough, when someone punches you in the mouth it also has five ingredients.’ (Photograph by René Stoeltie)

All photographs by Lucinda Douglas Menzies except when credited otherwise

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Laura France permalink
    December 21, 2021

    The warmth and intimacy of these rooms is such a comfort. My nose was twitching with imagined aromas of candle wax, dampness, coal fire, pudding and the peels in punch! Joy, and thank you!

  2. Peter Hart permalink
    December 21, 2021

    Great photos of the Servers’ house. Thank you.

  3. Sandra Green permalink
    December 21, 2021

    Never mind the hosts…let’s hear it for the cleaners. So much dusting!
    Seriously, though, it’s a beautiful experience.

  4. December 21, 2021

    What a wonderful house packed with absolute treasures.

  5. December 21, 2021

    Awesome. The whole history of the house. Touching the memory of Queen Victoria …
    Another stop for my next visit to London. Hopefully.

    Love & Peace

  6. December 21, 2021

    I’ve staged and styled my share of photo sessions in my lifetime — which gives me an EXTRA
    dollop of enjoyment for this magnificent array of images. What beautiful, evocative, and atmospheric photos! Every detail adds to the collective vibe — the old letter (seemingly stuffed with many-times-read holiday wishes……), the small glass with only a sip left, a crooked stub of candle, a well-loved damask cloth, and the lovely bowl. Sigh. I imagine myself sitting in this room, on a wobbly chair with a tasseled cushion, a big cat curled up at my feet.

    I have always loved arranging and re-arranging rampant arrays of stuff on mantles. The tableau with Queen Victoria overseeing the duo of flags, glass cloches, tin types, Staffordshire dogs, and paper ephemera……..Mother’s milk to this art director.

    Thank you for this holiday treat, GA and gifted photographer Lucinda.

  7. Erin Threlkeld permalink
    December 21, 2021

    What are the five ingredients of being punched in the mouth? Curious.

  8. Bill permalink
    December 21, 2021

    As always, an enlightening and perspicacious post from the Gentle Author. I love it!

  9. December 21, 2021

    I didn’t know that punch had exactly five ingredients…! Rum or whiskey, water, sugar, and citrus… what’s the last one? I shall have to consult Steven Grasse’s Colonial Spirits.

    I had planned a visit to Dennis Severs’ House in October, but they had to cancel due to illness, and I was only in London for a week. I don’t know when I’ll be back, at this point, but I will definitely get there one day!

    It is equally likely that Mrs Jervis wore panniers on her hips; literally two basket-shaped cages that look rather like the baskets you’d put on either side of a donkey to carry bread.

  10. Erin permalink
    December 21, 2021

    After being enthralled by the Gentle Author’s Spitalfields Tour a few weeks ago, we are looking forward to seeing Dennis Severs’ House later in December -fingers crossed.
    Best wishes for a Covid-free Christmas.

  11. Su C. permalink
    December 22, 2021

    What lovely images. We were lucky to tour Dennis Severs’ house in 2017 and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I hope we can visit again, and sooner rather than later, all things considered. Be well.

  12. Lizebeth permalink
    December 22, 2021

    Thank you so much for the virtual tour of the House this Christmas. It’s a place I first went to when Denis was still there, and until the pandemic, I visited at least twice yearly, and introduced many British friends to it. Now still stuck in California due to Covid and dreaming not of a White, but of a London, Christmas. Greetings to you, Gentle Author, and to all there.

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