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September 21, 2015

Visiting Dennis Severs’ House in London, Inspiration for THE MARVELS

On a recent trip to England this past summer, I was lucky enough to get an intimate tour of the Dennis Severs' House in the Spitalfields neighborhood of downtown London. The initial point of my trip abroad was to visit my sister and her fiancé (who live across the pond), drink tea at 4pm like the locals, and eat some downright delicious Indian food --- my favorite! But, you know how things go: just when you snuggle comfortably into vacay-relaxation mode, some very cool opportunities come up that cannot be missed.
When Shara, the Editorial Manager for, suggested I check out the Severs' house after learning that it was the inspiration for the setting of Brian Selznick's THE MARVELS, it seemed like too good of an idea to shrug off. So I told my sister, a longtime art devotee who has committed her life and work to exploring these kinds of eccentric places, and she set up a private tour for us. Fast forward two weeks, and alas, on a breezy, but very sunny day in Londontown, we experienced Severs' notable masterpiece, as guided by his longtime companion and current curator of the historic landmark, David.
The house dates back to 1724. Severs, an artist and California transplant, purchased it in 1979 and for the next 20 years, worked to "recreate the rooms as a time capsule in the style of former centuries." He refurnished, redecorated and modeled each of the 10 rooms (5-6 stories) into what it would be like for a family of Huguenot silk weavers during different periods of time from 1724-1914. He called it a "still-life drama." Since the time of his death in 1999, the various rooms, an eating parlour, multiple bedrooms, a sitting room, the basement kitchen, the smoking room, and the like provide not just a glimpse, but a full-fledged immersion into a family's homelife during these centuries.
When David ushered us in, we were instantly removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. We were transported to Severs' creation --- a fantastical, yet strangely peaceful world. In the cellar, it was damp and the air was poorly circulated. Upstairs, the bedrooms were warm, as the active fireplaces would provide heat during the sleeping hours back in the day. And the sitting room was draped in pink florals and delicate laces, fabrics that evoke a sense of luxury and decadence. In our private tour, we learned more about the background of the artistic creation of the space than one typically learns in the public tour. In fact, as David described, the public tour is an event.
In the public tour, small groups of people, around 10 or so, are guided throughout the house and spend five minutes or so in each room. The candles are lit, there's real food on the kitchen table, an apple half-eaten and a chunk of baguette missing from the whole, steaming hot cups of tea, and freshly spilled wine. There's background music and noises that match the time period, like that of horses' hooves clanking on the cobblestone that would be heard only in a street-level room. Those on the tour are encouraged to stay silent as they observe the multitude of meticulously placed objects, and experience the sights, sounds and smells. In essence, you become a fly on the wall, peeking into the life and the living of a family at different settings, in different points in time.
While our tour wasn't the whole package, we took away a greater understanding of Severs' artistic intent and the importance of the artwork as a symbol of the intersection of the contemporary and the historic. David was so gracious and endlessly forthcoming about the whole production, more than willing to indulge in each and every one of our little curiosities --- he even gave me a postcard of a picture of one of the rooms that was decorated for Christmas (see above)! Our little adventure ended with a passionate discussion between the three of us about the ongoing struggle to preserve art and a historic landmark in a part of town that is modernizing at a startling rate --- how meta!
So, if you happen to live in London, close to the city, or if you're traveling there and have some free time, I strongly encourage you to sign up for the tour. David's a gem. It's budget-friendly, coveniently located and you'll rack up some cultural activity points. (Apparently, Meryl Streep went once with some girlfriends, and they loved it!)  I imagine the full experience is something like standing in the middle of a stage while a play is being performed around you. It is a living, breathing and active space. It is a present space --- a dichotomy of its subject matter that's rooted in history --- built with imaginative intent and preserved by whimsical intrigue.