Friday, September 10, 2010

What Would The Selby Think

Have you ever dreamed about living in olden times? How romantic it would be, how quaint, how beautiful things look in a certain light. I always loved the 1700's, imagining myself in a low cut gown, wigged, and glamorous by candlelight.

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.

Photo from here

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.

Photo from here

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 Kitchen

Photo from here

A dining room

Is that a wig hanging on the back of the chair?!

The Smoking Room

The drawing room

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.

The bed is left unmade

There are several bedrooms. Sometimes you can hear a child giggle or a young woman whispering.

Did someone just leave the room?

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.

One of the bedrooms
The decrepitude is breathtaking

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.

"Pay Attention"
I love the tat on the walls

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.

Top floor

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.

Top Floor
photo from

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!


La Petite Gallery said...

Valorie, How did you ever do this post. It was fasinating, the old Damask fabric on the four poster.
How did you come upond this story it's great.

Ps the chairs by the bed I gave an arm chair to Renee. Same chair but with arms.

Jan said...

It's beautifully photographed Valorie, but I think you know how I feel about dimly lit rooms, or rather totally dark rooms!
I can relate to the unmade bed though.

p.s. this is a great post.

Renée Finberg said...

movie set after movie set...
i was drawn into each space,
left only to imagine.


Karena said...

Valorie, astounding images! It makes you want to read more as if it is indeed a biography.

I have a New Giveaway from The French Basketeer I think you will love!

Art by Karena

Unknown said...

Just about to watch the game!!! This is fascinating. I love that unmade bed....that looks like my kind of crib!!

xo Elizabeth

Visual Vamp said...

Can you imagine that Dennis lived in the house like this? No electricity, all those vignettes, and the house tours daily.
Yvonne, someone gave me a newspaper article about this man, and I went down the rabbit hole to find about more, and wanted to share it with everybody.
Off to watch the game!
xo xo

Renae Moore said...

Beautiful....wonder how they cleaned all of that fabric?
Weird thought I know..hehe.

Sketch42 said...

Dennis must have been VERY STRANGE. But I can totally appreciate the sentiment and the house is gorgeous!

Sabina said...

Fantastic post, you took the original material and ran with it. And speaking of material, I can almost smell the mildew in some of those photos ;->

Visual Vamp said...

He was strange and eccentric.
Anyone that devoted to living in the past has a bit of Miss Havisham madness.
But he created beauty out of that madness.
Some people call the tour of the house bonkers. This kind of house tour reminds me of of an uber Disney ride.
xo xo

jlonit said...

I saw this house in one of the British "Who Do You Think You Are" ancestry tracing shows - it was in relation to a current day British celebrity whose ancestors were hugeunots. It stuck in my mind then and these photos are more detailed and just as haunting. Spitalfields is now a really trendy area after being a really run down and neglected area to live in - it's pretty near central London near the East End. Of course the old houses in this area now cost a fortune to buy considering that 20 years ago no-one wanted them.

Tara Dillard said...

Most everything is geared for children when tourists are involved. (More, unfortunately.)

Great example of gearing it for adults, and engaging the children is a bonus.

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

Decor To Adore said...

I sit here amazed in awe. I've been to London twice and somehow have missed this. Luckily my husband's family is still thee and this wonderful curiousity is at the top of my must see list. Thank you.

susan said...

What an interesting post! I am going to have to do some more research. It does seem just a little melancholy though. My husband just returned from the game and New Orleans. He is already in his chair fast asleep...poor thing it wore him out :)

Velvet and Linen said...

Yes, absolutely breath taking. I need to visit!

Jeanine Byers Hoag said...

Very interesting!! (And strange).

But the rooms were so dark. Did no one open the windows back then?


Carrie Waller Watercolors said...

Pretty amazing! A tad creepy, but mostly fantastic. Terrific post, really felt like I went on a tour:)

24 Corners said...

Your post truly had me wandering the rooms as if I was there...I hope one day to be able to step into that realm in would be like walking into history, or a dream.

Have a thoroughtly enjoyable weekend...xo J~

24 Corners said...

That would be..."thoroughly"! ;)

Sarah Greenman said...

Miss Havisham madness, indeed. I loved this post. Immensely. Thank you so much for taking the time and special care to bring us these photos, this story and this experience. It on my list for my next London visit. You are awesome.

Laura Casey Interiors said...

So interesting and visually amazing. I love this post and story, thanks for sharing.

Reggie Darling said...

Next time I am visiting London this is going to be a "must see" for me and Boy. Thank you for the introduction!

Sue Murphy@ life as a house said...

This is the most amazing example of Living History as an Art form I have ever seen. It is going on my Bucket List.

Karen at French Skinny said...

Amazing. This is now on my "must experience" list. Thank you so much for sharing this.

Shirley Goff said...

VV,you have outdone yourself this time. This is a fantastic post. I have ordered his book. I can hardly wait to visit. I want to do an evening Christmas program. Thank you for this.