A young man in California dreamed this way too. And he saved up his money delivering newspapers and washing dishes in a restaurant, so that when he was 15 he could take his first trip abroad to the most romantic place of his imagination: London. He went home to finish high school, and then five days after he graduated he moved there permanently, a confirmed and avid Anglophile.
He bought a very very old house in 1979, and turned back the clock inside of it to the 1700's.
He not only furnished it authentically with old things, but also created vignettes and life stories of the people who might have lived there. And he lived there himself, part of this elaborate tableaux vivant.
This house was turned it into a time capsule. He was an artist and lived in the house in much the same way as its original occupants might have done in the early 18th century.
Built in 1724, the five story house is a collection of objects laid out as if the family who lived there just left, or perhaps are just within the next room. The visitor views by natural light or dim candle the portraits, the half written shopping lists, the knife handle sticking out from a loaf of day old bread, the books, pamphlets, and bric-a-brac, all lovingly collected and curated.
To enter through the door is to pass through a frame and into a painting - one with a time and a life of it's own, and very much like atmospheric lighting of old Flemish paintings the boy admired more than the bleached California sunlight he grew up with, or very much like the British films like "Oliver Twist" and "My Cousin Rachel" that he watched on television in California.
The game he wants you to play when you a tour the house, is that you interrupt a family of Huguenot silk weavers named Jervis who, though they can still sometimes be heard, seem always to be just out of sight.
As you journey off in a quiet search through the ten rooms, each by fire and candlelight, and strictly in silence as demanded by your host, you receive a number of assaults to your senses, including the scent of orange peels and cinanmaon cloves used to offset the presence of urine in the chamber pot.
There is the sound of a carriage outside, the wheels and the horses hooves, clattering and clip clopping off into the London street. There is the smell of food . Mr Jervis's meal is only half-eaten. Did he abandon it when he heard us arrive ? This experience conducted in silence, makes the level poetic. One becomes lost in another time, as one feels to be on their own in the house.
The ten rooms of the house harbor ten experiences, that engage the imagination in moods that dominated the periods between 1724 and 1914.
You begin in the cellar in the dark where there are fragments of St. Mary's Spital AD 1197, hence the name 'Spitalfields', the neighborhood the house is located in. You are drawn in by the light and warmth of a fireplace.
The unmade four poster bed in the sleeping chamber, its damask curtains held back by cords and tassels, make it seem like the occupant just got out of bed.
There are several bedrooms. Sometimes you can hear a child giggle or a young woman whispering.
When you enter a room, a candle has just been extinguished and has left a trail of smoke as if the occupant has just snuffed out the candle and left in a hurry.
On a first floor desk, scribbled with a quill pen on a piece of paper, are the words, "pay attention", which is what the host demands. He wants one to use all five senses when investigating the past.
As you reach the top floor, it starts to get cold and less luxurious. These are the rooms that the Jervis family have rented out, and are for a poorer family. The drapes on the bed are tattered and torn and the furniture is of much poorer quality. On a table are the remains of a supper of oysters, which was the food of the poor in those days. You can hear the tolling of Big Ben, telling the City that Queen Victoria is dead.
On the top floor, the Jarvis' fine oak furniture gives away to the squalid laundry of the renters who supposedly took over in the late 19th century. The tale is wordlessly spun of the house's decline, before it and others in the historic district known as Spitafields became the darling of preservationists in the 1960's and 1970's.
photo from here
photo from here
This is not a museum. It is not designed to make you learn something in a conventional way. If you are annoyed at the silence requested and observed, then you have missed the point. The visitor is required to engage with the atmosphere and story, and, if you do, it's a really special sensation that stays with you. From the minute you walk in the door, you step back in time, and you can imagine the hard times when you reach the attic rooms, eerily cold - you can smell the poverty. Listen hard and you can hear the occupants. The journey through the house becomes a journey through time with it's small rooms and hidden corridors, it's secrets whispered. It resembles a pilgrimage through life itself
Painter David Hockney described the house as one of the world's greatest works of opera.
Dennis Severs bequeathed his home to the Spitalfields Trust shortly before his death at age 51.
18, Folgate Street
excerpts from tour web site
PS The Selby is a photographer who is known for photographing interiors artfully as-is.
PPS Thanks Sabina!