top of page
Search
  • Ettienne LeFebre

Dennis Severs' House: A Multi-Century London Time Capsule

This post is part of a series of case studies investigating innovation in historic site interpretation. The case studies explore new technologies, advanced approaches to storytelling, community engagement, and multi-sensory experiential learning. Research and writing for the series was completed by Ettienne LeFebre during her 2023 summer internship with Groundwork, with contributions and oversight by Gretchen Hilyard Boyce.


The Dennis Severs’ House is a historic house museum and artistic performance piece in the Spitalfields neighborhood of London, England. Established in 1979 by American expat Dennis Severs, the house displays the life of a fictional Huguenot family of silk weavers. Severs was an artist, amateur historian, collector, and storyteller, and the house was his life’s work. The house is currently managed by the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, whose mission as a nonprofit is to preserve the history of the Spitalfields neighborhood. Severs repaired the house and collected eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century artifacts to transform the four floors into dioramas, each room telling a different story. While Severs’ vision was to create a performance piece utilizing a historic backdrop, the strategies employed by Severs and the Spitalfields Trust creates an immersive experience that can serve as a model for other interpretive sites to create more engaging and imaginative interpretive experiences for visitors.


Google Maps, “18 Folgate St,” https://www.google.com/maps/@51.5209595,-0.0776401,3a,90y,227.69h,115.9t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sBV71nDx1BzE5IgrFPiGlhQ!2e0!7i16384!8i8192?entry=tt.

Severs lived at the house from 1979 until his death in 1999. Severs’ intention for the house was described in his obituary published in the Guardian as follows:

As he put it, he did not want so much to ‘restore’ the house with its paneled rooms, "but to bring it to life as my home. With a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll, I began sleeping in each of the house's 10 rooms so that I might arouse my intuition in the quest for each room's soul.

Then, having neared it, I worked inside out from there to create what turned out to be a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbor the light and the spirit of various ages in Time."

The multi-sensory immersive experience of the house unfolds throughout the ten rooms and utilizes the visual, auditory, and olfactory senses to transport visitors to 1724, when the house was built, through the end of the Victorian era. Immersion allows the visitor to imagine themself in the time period being displayed and feel empathy for the historical subjects through their own multisensory experience. Although the family portrayed in the house are fictional, Spitalfields was a main migration spot for Huguenot refugees from France in the 1720s, and the area fell into disrepair during the Victorian era. While the history of the house is fictional, the house still contextualizes the historical experiences of many East Londoners for visitors and gives them the opportunity to temporarily “live” in the past with Spitalfields residents from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.


Roelof Bakker, “The Victorian Room,” https://www.macfilos.com/2016/11/21/2016-11-21-denis-severs-house-unique-museum-london-spitalfields/.

The Severs’ House tour begins on the lowest levels of the house, in the rooms where the fictional Jervis family live. The Jervises are depicted as Huguenot silk weavers who escaped persecution from France. Rather than keeping visitors behind “velvet ropes,” people are encouraged to walk through each room and quietly take in the scene before them. This effect allows visitors to imagine they are also living in the same time period as the Jervises, an immersive element that cannot be replicated in pristine recreations of historic rooms that emphasize the separation between the artifacts and the people who used them. The visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli throughout the house each contribute to closing the separation between the visitors and the past.


Examples of visual stimuli in the rooms include half consumed glasses of wine, plates of food, and lit candles and fireplaces throughout the home. These visuals conceptualize the house as not only a lived space, but give it the feeling that the residents have only just left. The passage of time and evolution of the Jervises social and financial circumstance is clearly shown in the progression of rooms, as the lower floors have opulent furniture and beautiful baroque paintings while the upper floors are characterized by their faded wallpaper and cramped and dirty living quarters. The visuals not only help perpetuate the narrative, but communicate the true historical experience of Spitalfields descending into poverty in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Roelof Bakker, “The Dickens Room,” https://www.macfilos.com/2016/11/21/2016-11-21-denis-severs-house-unique-museum-london-spitalfields/.

The auditory stimuli at the Severs’ House immerses the visitor even deeper into the world of the Jervises. Speakers are hidden throughout the rooms and play a soundtrack of noises that relate to the room or time period, including carriages rushing by outside and voices whispering. An excellent example of how the house immerses you in this journey through time is in the drab, poverty-stricken Victorian-era room one can hear guns firing in honor of Queen Victoria’s coronation. The visual cues in the room indicate the different time period, as well as the auditory clues that pull the visitors even deeper into the story.


One of the most impressive aspects of the Dennis Severs’ House experience is the olfactory strategies employed. Each room has its own distinct scent, and some are purposefully unpleasant. While the scents of garlic, rosemary, and candle wax fill certain rooms, the scents of a half-full chamber pot and tobacco smoke fill another. The scentscape created in Severs’ House encourages the visitor to not only smell the scents, but locate them within the room. For example, by observing the location of the garlic and rosemary near the chamberpot, one can discern that the herbs helped mask the odors associated with the lack of indoor plumbing.


There have been some criticisms from historians that certain features in the house do not accurately represent the time period on display, but the Dennis Severs’ House is at its roots a performance art piece with the primary goal of creating a unique and striking experience, not an entirely historically accurate one. However, this art piece can easily inform historic interpretation at other historic sites, as the Severs’ House clearly captivates audiences and breaks down barriers between the past and the present. All historic sites have a historic look, sound, and smell that can be recreated in a historically accurate way to immerse and educate visitors. Further development of events and programs at the Severs’ House could deepen the sensory experience further by bringing in touch and taste to immerse the visitor. Overall, Dennis Severs’ House is an exceptional example of an immersive historical experience utilizing the senses, and it can inspire other historic sites to transform their interpretation strategies into more enjoyable, experimental, and engaging experiences for visitors.


About the Author

Ettienne LeFebre is currently completing her Master’s degree in Public History at Sacramento State University, with a focus in historic preservation and cultural resources management. Her research centers around the diversification of historic resources, increasing public interest and engagement at historic sites, and the preservation of intangible heritage. She specializes in California and Southwestern U.S. history, and aims to preserve historic resources related to the complex and diverse histories of these regions for the benefit of contemporary communities. In her free time she enjoys hiking along the American River, reading, creative writing, and exploring Sacramento’s incredible food scene.


References


Barrie, Thomas. “A very good house: Dennis Severs House explores 250 years of East London history.” House & Garden, September 7, 2022, https://www.houseandgarden.co.uk/article/dennis-severs-house-london-spitalfields.


The Courtauldian. “Dennis Severs’ House Review.” Accessed July 20, 2023. https://www.courtauldian.com/single-post/2019/02/01/dennis-severs-house-review.


Dennis Severs’ House. “Dennis Severs’ House.” Accessed July 20, 2023. https://dennissevershouse.co.uk/.


Dixon, Charlie. “Inside Dennis Severs House.” The London Magazine, accessed July 20, 2023, https://thelondonmagazine.org/feature-inside-dennis-severs-house/.


Evans, Mike. “The Dennis Severs House: A unique museum at the heart of Spitalfields.” Macfilos, November 21, 2016, https://www.macfilos.com/2016/11/21/2016-11-21-denis-severs-house-unique-museum-london-spitalfields/.


Google Maps. “18 Folgate St.” Accessed July 20, 2023. https://www.google.com/maps/@51.5209595,-0.0776401,3a,90y,227.69h,115.9t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sBV71nDx1BzE5IgrFPiGlhQ!2e0!7i16384!8i8192?entry=tt.


Kingsley, Jenny. “Dennis Severs’ House - an 18th-century time machine.” Artistic Miscellany, January 14, 2016, http://artisticmiscellany.com/2016/01/14/dennis-severs-house-an-18th-century-time-machine/.


McEnvoy, Emma. “Dennis Severs’ House: Performance, Psychogeography, and the Gothic.” Visual Culture in Britain 12, no. 2 (2011): 185-201.


Museums London. “Dennis Severs House.” Accessed July 20, 2023. https://www.museumslondon.org/museum/49/dennis-severs-house.


Stamp, Gavin. “Obituary - Dennis Severs: Creator of a three-dimensional historical novel, written in brick and candlelight in Spitalfields.” The Guardian, January 9, 2000. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2000/jan/10/guardianobituaries.


“The repair team preserving an 18th Century home.” BBC News, July 26, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-57824929.


Winer, Laurie. “Dennis Severs House evokes the London past - - and you better pay attention.” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 2010, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-ca-dennis-severs17-2010jan17-story.html.


Comments


bottom of page