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The Invigilators Of Spitalfields

April 20, 2022
by the gentle author

Have you ever wondered what goes through the minds of those implacable silent invigilators who stand sentinel, presiding over the rooms at Dennis Severs House? I spoke with some of them recently when Lucinda Douglas Menzies did their portraits and discovered that, despite their unassuming demeanours, they each had quite a lot to say.

Emily Ball

‘I am studying History of Art at the Courtauld, specialising in Performance Art, its history and evolution from Loïe Fuller to the present day.

Even aside from the performances that take place here, I see Dennis Severs’ House itself is a kind of performance that amounts to a self-portrait. This was his world and his mind, literalised as a house. You are walking into his imagination. He was living his performance through his life which ties in to notions of ‘endurance performance’ – although it was clearly not endurance for him because he seems to have loved it so much!

It became so much more than a performance because it was his life. I think what he did is unique. For a lot of the performances I study there is little physical evidence, but he managed to immortalise his vision in a house and because of the Spitalfields Trust it is saved for everyone for perpetuity. We are really lucky to have it because there are so many performances that are lost, you had to be there or there was no audience so nobody knows about them.

When I experienced one of the tours here, I thought it was going be a guide taking us through the history in each room but actually it was it this astonishing performance that brought to life Dennis Severs’ vision. I loved how startling it was with loud noises, banging on the door and the shouting outside.

If I had to live in a time in the past, I would live at the court of Charles II because of the masques that he staged. I would have loved to have been a part of those, the theatre, the amazing costumes, the fun and the parties.’

Rory Henderson

‘I am a Stage Manager working in theatre production but I did my degree in English Literature, focussing on eighteenth century aestheticism and I came across Dennis Severs’ House through that. There’s actually a course which sends students here to get an idea of the notion of ‘textured performance,’ with performance being alive in the setting of a house. That is what is unique about Dennis Severs’ House.

I came here because I wanted to learn more abut this world and Dennis Severs. I had not realised before that there was such an important site in Queer History on my doorstep and I was keen to have the opportunity to work here.

It’s fun because I work with people from such interesting and different backgrounds and we are all here together in this house, making it come alive for people. Theatre tends to very linear in form but this is beyond anything I have ever experienced. It has been a learning curve to work out how to manoeuvre around so many fragile and old props.

If I had to live in the past – as long as it was not forever – I would go back to the late eighteenth century because I studied it and I already know so much about it.

Then I could discover for myself what the Readers’ Societies and secret gay literary circles were actually like. I would befriend the people I have been studying who created texts exploring gay eroticism. My dissertation was about anonymous Queer Texts – including ‘The Sins of The Cities of the Plain’ – that were published secretly among societies of writers, and how these underground productions were passed between friends until they became widely popular.’

Amy Haigh

‘I am an Artist and Researcher focusing mainly on themes of Ecology, living and working in South East London. I studied at Camberwell and Royal College of Art , graduating from MA Information Experience Design in 2019. At some point on this journey I transitioned from Environmental Graphic Designer to Artist, and now work from my studio on Old Kent Rd to study and retell ecological narratives, mainly through sculpture and installations.

Working at Dennis Severs’ House, I feel inspired to be in a creative space. Although I come from London I did not know of the house and I was intrigued, I find it quite magical. The house and the tours are all about creating a world and storytelling through use of space, lighting and objects, and this is something that I am deeply interested in.

I like working in an environment that feels far away from the outside world, especially when the visitors are completely engaged. It is an inspiring space and I watch how people go round it and what they notice – people often point out things that I had not seen before.

Watching people walk round and being part of that energy is a really great experience. As an artist, I am fascinated by the process of putting something from your imagination into the world and see how it is viewed, what feedback you get.

If I had to live in a time in the past, I would choose to live in the sixties and the seventies. It was an interesting time and the rebellious nature of that era appeals to me.’

Phoebe Wadman

‘I have just finished my Master’s Degree in Queer History so I am especially interested in this aspect of Dennis Severs’ House. I understand that it is not obvious to everyone but I can see it in the way it has been put together, employing lots of secondhand junk to create this ridiculously over-the-top beautiful interior. The act of doing that is Queer in itself.

When I look at the interiors of this house, I think about the history of HIV and AIDS. I like Simon Pettet’s cheeky tiles in the fireplace of the master bedroom, his tile of copulating bunnies at the kitchen window and the shaving bowl he made. I love Simon’s work and it makes me smile to see these personal touches and be reminded that he was here. I love to see the photos of Dennis too. It is a history that is still hidden in many ways. In London, we do not have a memorial to those who died of AIDS and there is little recognition of what happened. But being surrounded here by this personal history is really touching.

If I had to live in the past, I would choose to live in the nineteen-seventies and eighties – which is not that long ago – because I am fascinated by that time in terms of Queer History, the legal recognition of LGBTQ rights, and the sexual and feminist wars. It is an interesting era that has not gone away but speaks a lot to where we are now.’

Lis Gernerd

‘I have a PhD in Eighteenth Century Dress and Material Culture, so I am really excited to work here because Dennis Severs’ House has a playful way of dealing with history. Objects here are not in glass boxes and there is anachronism. The house is curated to make visitors feel they are entering the past in a way that is not conveyed by traditional museums. The point here is not to be authentic but to give a sense of history.

I love the Smoking Room most at Dennis Severs’ House. I love the scent, it is what gets you first. For me, the scent of tobacco is the most emotive in the house. I also love the textiles in the Smoking Room, my favourite embroidery is there upon the velvet frock coat draped over the chair. It is the room with the most stories to tell.

If I had to live in the past, provided I had the money, I would be happy to live in the late eighteenth century because then all of my research questions could be answered. The seventeen-seventies and eighties are definitely my happy place.’

Sean Wilcox

‘In the early seventies, my father took me to see Christopher Plummer play the Duke of Wellington and Rod Steiger as Napoleon Bonaparte in ‘Waterloo.’ It was a gateway for me and suddenly the past came to life. Then, in 2002, I sought out Dennis Severs’ House and realised I had to become part of it.

I am fascinated by Dennis Severs’ ability to capture the domestic life of eighteenth century Spitalfields. It is not academic like a museum here, it transports you back in time into an aesthetic context and it caught my imagination.

I find, even though I have been here twenty years, the house has an infinity of moods, changing with the seasons.

My relationship with it continues to evolve all the time too, as I become more aware of the different way the light comes through sash windows at different times of the year. The novelty may have worn off but there are constantly new novelties that appear.’

Ottelien Huckin

‘I am a painter. Before the pandemic my work was figurative and I was interested in the Rococo. I used to paint large canvasses but now I work on small pieces and, over the lockdown, I learnt the technique of Japanning – a seventeenth century process which involves thirty layers of varnish, sanded in between and gilded with gold leaf. I wanted to learn something that would slow my practice down, and I like the idea of creating a decorative object rather than a painting. Maybe it was an existential crisis? Because of the pandemic I wanted to create work that would last for hundreds of years.

I moved to London a year ago in the middle of lockdown and I sought a job that would contribute to my art practice. Dennis Severs’ House speaks to me because it is filled with interesting objects and lots of examples of Japanning. I am half-Dutch and I dabble in Delftware, so that element here attracts me too.

I love the eclecticism of it all. I love coming to work where I am able to study an object and try to understand it, learning about different periods in history. I love the Japanned grandfather clock in the hallway at Dennis Severs’ House, I can stare at it for hours because it is so beautiful.

Simon Pettet’s Delftware appeals to me because I appreciate his approach to craft. There is a respect for tradition yet, equally, he is creating narratives and images that related to his life in Spitalfields. It is a lovely combination of the personal and the historic, and I hope my work is a bit like that too.

If I had to live in the past, I would choose the mid-eighteenth century because I love all the clothes in the master bedroom, especially the flower embroidery. To dress up like that every day would be quite nice but, as a woman, I realise whatever time I chose would not permit me as many freedoms as I enjoy today.’

Sam Keelan

‘I am an artist, mainly working in Photography but also Film. I used to be fascinated by camp horror, but now I have shifted my interest to the uncanny and the banal. Originally, I did my Foundation course at Leeds College of Art then Sculpture at Wimbledon and, as my post graduate, I studied Drawing at the Royal Academy for three years.

Coming from Yorkshire, much of my work is about suburban Yorkshire but with a Queer twist. At lot of my photography and writing concerns layers of artifice and fakery, how it can hold something less spectacular or even mundane beneath.

Dennis Severs’ House fascinates me as this space which is set up as if it had been lived in by a family through four generations, yet it was lived in at the same time. It is both fake and real simultaneously, and there is a curious tension between these things. I think it is quite camp to change your whole house into a set that you live within. It contains both aspiration and tragedy in equal measure. While it is really impressive in its own right, it expresses a longing for something unattainable too.

I appreciate the silence at Dennis Severs’ House. As an invigilator, my job is to make sure people do not talk or touch things. I like being in my own head. It feels like solitude in public because there are a lot of people walking around. It is quite a strange experience.

I love the Drawing Room most – you really feel like you walked in and something has just happened. Also I enjoy the Regency Room because the pink colour palette appeals to me.

If I had to live in an era in the past, I would choose Classical Greece. It might be fun because there was so much debauchery and I am attracted to the homoerotic aspects of that world. I am interested by how the Graeco-Roman aesthetic has been filtered through Georgian culture into the present day, where now you might even find bad plastic classical columns and Roman or Greek busts in a spa.’

Portraits copyright © Lucinda Douglas Menzies

You may also like to read about

Scenes From Dennis Severs House

The Renewal of Dennis Severs House

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 20, 2022

    Fascinating stuff, and great to hear all the different perspectives from the various invigilators.

    I always enjoy your pen portraits of people with a Spitalfields connection, especially when accompanied by such great photographs.

    And the question about which era in the past you’d like to live in has got me thinking too… The late Victorian/Edwardian period would probably be my choice (as long as I was living in arty circles where I could get away without wearing a corset!) and I suspect I would have been an a banner waving Suffragette too.

  2. Sue permalink
    April 20, 2022

    Fascinating to read all their thoughts on the house and history.
    I remember being enthralled by the idea of the house shortly after it was opened when I read a piece in the Guardian about it. Never did get to see it as I couldn’t find anybody to go with who would have got it. Nowadays I would simple go on my own but live far away. Maybe one day.

  3. April 20, 2022

    Thank you for “filling our cup” about the Dennis Severs House. I never tire of hearing more about this venture. Wonderful, evocative portraits.

    I have always wanted to time-travel BACK; so these folks really feel like my peeps.
    I’ve always had the wish to ride in a horse-drawn carriage, down Fifth Avenue past the New York Public Library……….with Mark Twain.

    “I believe we should preserve the evidence of the past, not as a pattern for sentimental imitation but as nourishment for the creative spirits of the present. ” — Alexander Girard

  4. Virginia Heaven permalink
    April 20, 2022

    Lovely portraits—I purchased a book about the house because I live so far away, but plan to visit when I can. We haven’t heard about Schrodinger in a while (or did I miss something?) any chance of an update? Thanks for these pools of pleasurable reflection each day.

  5. DianeDiane permalink
    April 24, 2022

    These interesting & thoughful folks give me hope X

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