Awaken ghosts of Christmas past via Dennis Severs House’s beautiful little squares.

T’was the night before Christmas three decades ago, and Dennis Severs had lit every last candle on his tree. His house in Spitalfields was festooned with Victorian cherubs, his table laid with winter fruits. The scene was illuminated by candlelight only. When Severs’ friend, David Milne, arrived, he brought with him the only modern interloper to the scene: a small, portable television, an exception made for this one time of the year. ‘We turned it on,’ recalls Milne, ‘And just at that moment, a curious passer-by knocked on the window, keen to see inside. I never saw Dennis move so fast. He literally flung himself over the television to hide our guilty secret!’

This is just one in a catalogue of anecdotes that Milne, now the custodian of 18 Folgate Street, has accumulated over the 30 years he has spent in the house, first as a guest and now as its curator. The late Dennis Severs, a Californian ex-lawyer, bought the Georgian townhouse in Spitalfields in 1978 at the age of 30, having already by then turned his back on the law – and convention – in favour of a more eccentric life, making the money he needed by driving a 19th-century carriage around London and telling his passengers stories of the families who had once lived in the grand houses of Mayfair and Belgravia. At that time, Severs lived in Gloucester Road, west London; it was only when his house was to be demolished that he discovered a fascinating enclave in the east.

When he happened upon 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields, what Severs saw was a 19th-century layer on top of an 18th-century layer. Yet, in possession of a keen eye for beauty, he travelled through the rooms and got a sense of what it would have been and could be again. An aesthete and collector, Folgate Street’s newest incumbent began to amass period pieces while eschewing electricity and gas, preferring to live instead by candlelight as its 18th-century inhabitants would have done.

A great believer in stories, he channelled the spirit of the age via a family of French immigrant Huguenot weavers – the Jervises, a real family who lived in the area, though not in Dennis’ actual house. Via these characters, Severs created a series of secret tableaux. Everything he did felt real because the point at which Dennis stopped at the Jervises began was completely blurred.

Severs’ house soon became something of whispered legend among the cognoscenti. Before long, he began hosting theatrical tours of his home which now, as then, is crowded with artefacts: dressers festooned with crockery; four-poster beds shrouded in cascading red and orange velvet, rumpled as if its owner had just got up; fruit and etched decanters of wine; and at Christmas, a tree whose boughs heave with glass baubles and treasured decorations, lovingly dusted off year after year. The whole thing is bathed in soft, flickering candlelight. It is like stepping into a living Baroque painting.

Severs was perceptive enough to know that full appreciation for what he’d done would likely be posthumous. He always said, ‘When I’m dead, they’ll like me.’ Indeed, since his death 20 years ago, the house has been hailed as a living work of art, not least by David Hockney who once described it as opera. Visitor numbers have swelled in the intervening two decades. In normal, non-pandemic years, every Monday and Wednesday see the inquisitive piling in, many of whom are visibly moved, while Christmas candlelit tours are booked up way in advance on account of their sheer magic. And there could be few more fitting tributes to the extraordinary house that Dennis Severs – a man who truly kept Christmas in his heart – made than that.

By Nancy Alsop
December 2020

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Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.