The innocuous-sounding address of 18 Folgate Street
is here the book of the tour of Dennis Severs' extraordinary recreation of a Georgian household in Spitalfields, a piece of theatrical still life, mesmerisingly conjured. Severs died at the end of 1999, but this alternative written version, with the sympathetic editing of Jenny Uglow, a gallery of photographs and an introduction by London's literary curator and, indeed, biographer, Peter Ackroyd, provides a unique posthumous flat-pack tour, time-capsuled for the future curious.
Severs, a more-English-than-thou Californian, bought the house in a derelict street just outside the Square Mile in 1979, and set upon installing himself and his lifelong acquisitions. Friends called it a "restoration comedy", but it was to become a historical drama, with Severs' declaration that "my canvas is your imagination". He installed the fictional Gervais/Jervis family, Huguenot silk weavers, from whose affairs Severs himself weaves his narrative magic. Beginning in the basement larder and kitchen, he takes the visitor-reader on a parade upwards, though the parlour, dining room, drawing room, bedroom, boudoir and attic of the house, summoning drama and narrative from the strategically arranged and decorated rooms, heavy with the air of recent occupation. At its best, it resembles a talking book, each room an episode linking to the next, and with Severs' constant evocation of duality, symmetry and dimension as he finds art in balance rather than chronological fidelity. Taste, however, can be a cruel, haranguing thing, something Severs shares when his singular, proportionate vision of the "Space Between" takes pleasure in reading too much into things. Does it work as well on the page? Inevitably, not fully; the effect is reductive, and contrary to the very principle of Severs' ambition. However, this quirky externalisation of this eccentric Anglophile's life, and its epoch-tripping celebration of etymology, social history, hearth drama and cultural and philosophical commentary, allied to tantalisingly brief snatches of autobiography, serves as the final will and testament of Dennis Severs, who rejuvenated the soul of a house with his own charged, imaginative kindling. Ultimately, the house's motto stands as the book's--"Aut Visum Aut Non": you either see it or you don't. --David Vincent