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A past glimpsed from the corner of your eye
on 17 October 2011
This is an atmospheric and evocative book. Why only 3 stars then? Because everything Severs was trying to do in this house exists, as he puts it, in "the spaces in between"; it is in the half-overheard, the unsaid, the glimpsed. Impossible, of course, to do this in a book; a hard object full of printed words. However, Severs has a jolly good go at it and the results are intriguing and enjoyable, even if they can't possibly replicate the actual experience of the house with its dim lighting, noises and smells. So if, in one sense, this book is a failure, (though I for one wouldn't go that far) it is a magnificent one.
For those who don't already know, Dennis Severs was an American who fell in love with England; specifically with the London of the 18th century. Long before it was trendy (he helped create the trend) he bought a semi-derelict house in Spitalfields - 18 Folgate Street, of course - and set about not an academic restoration, but a recreation of the feeling of the past.
He used whatever materials came to hand, few of them historically exact, and covered up the stageyness of it by restricting the lighting. He lived in the house while doing it (I remember reading a magazine article decades ago, when the process had hardly started)and scavenged for objects to furnish it with whatever money he had available. The end result wasn't a museum or a National Trust style house-open-to-the-public, but a work of art, a poem, a play. Visitors, in small groups, were taken round by Severs who encouraged them to let slip their intellectual faculties and suspend disbelief; to enter into this latter-day fairy tale. Every prop, every bit of scene-setting, the "noises off" carefully taped a replayed at the appropriate time; all was designed to help us step into "the space between".
In this book, Severs has done his best to recreate the experience of going round the house, while filling in some of the biographical and technical background of his achievment. He succeeds up to a point in getting us to understand what the experience of the house must be like, but in the end we are reading a clever text and he cannot, of course, duplicate the emotional and theatrical impact. In the very nature of things, Severs is best at using objects, sounds and smells to work his art, and though the book is well-written the effort to convey the ineffable sometimes becomes mannered, even a little precious. If this starts to irritate you, check yourself; the book is worth persevering with. Dozens of superb, moody photos do help us in this interesting exercise of the imagination.
The book will be useful to many, especially as the numbers who can go round the house with Severs' successors as curators are necessarily very limited. If you find his poetic and rather winsome manner irritating, you are probably one of the people who wouldn't "get" the house anyway. Artists, film-makers, writers and those interested in domestic history should probably all read it.