Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Dennis Severs' House

On Monday I visited Dennis Severs' House in Spitalfields. I heartily recommend it – arrive early to beat the queues. The house's arch motto Aut visum aut non! – 'Either you see it or you don't!' – hints at an implication of snootiness towards those who don't 'get it', but there's plenty to see even if you think you don't get it.

I don't want to prejudice your interpretation of what's on display by giving you a mundane description. It certainly isn't what I assumed it was when I first arrived – a museum reconstruction of an eighteenth-century interior. Suffice it to say that artifice and naturalism are blended, as are past and present. Part of my experience involved taking the role of a time-travelling detective looking for clues, though it wasn't a murder I was investigating, but rather a subtle, unspoken trauma of the heart that had become imprinted onto the day-to-day activity of the house for generations.

About a dozen visitors are allowed into the house at a time. With the fulcrum of centuries so delicately poised, the illusion would be spoiled if talking were permitted, and we were warned against doing so, first by the doorman and then repeatedly by prominent notices displayed throughout the house. So it was surprising that several of our fellow visitors found it so hard to keep quiet.

I've seldom come across such a clear example of language being used to inhibit communication. Something uncanny and disturbing was going on in Dennis Severs' House, and it would take much more than a single visit to get to grips with it. All that is required is to observe, listen and smell. But this requires a certain submission and vulnerability that is far from straightforward. There was a strong impulse to block out the house's story. You could see from the pained expressions of the chatterboxes' faces that they earnestly wished they hadn't succumbed to the temptation to speak. I felt sorry for them.

Get yourself to Dennis Severs' House at your earliest opportunity! Shh!

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