In the basement kitchen of 18 Folgate Street, a terraced Georgian house in Spitalfields, East London, the faint smell of smoke from the Victorian range mingles with the aromas of oranges, mince pies and freshly baked cakes. Everywhere there are signs that festive preparations have been interrupted.
Walking into this low-ceilinged room – in silence – you cannot help a strange but undeniable sense of having been transported back in time. It’s a feeling that, had you arrived a minute earlier, this kitchen would have been a hub of activity and at any moment the cook might bustle in to finish icing her cakes, or a servant shuffle over to scrub the dishes at a sink lined with delftware tiles.
Dennis Severs, an eccentric Californian with a passion for the past, bought 18 Folgate Street in the 1970s (selling his 19th century carriage to do so), both to save the house from demolition, and also to preserve the everyday life that was once experienced in it.
All year round you can visit the house to catch a whiff of the lives Severs imagined within the house – all meticulously recreated using antiques bought from local dealers and lit with candles and gas lights. At Christmas, however, it takes on an extra magic when each theatrical room is transformed with decorations to suit the period.
Here Homes & Antiques takes a tour to discover a bewitching recreation of Christmases past…
The panelled eating parlour on the ground floor is furnished in early 18th-century style with carved oak chairs and a gateleg table. Early 18th-century potraits on the walls are said to be those of members of the Jervis family – the fictitious Huguenot silk weavers whom Dennis Severs imagined living here.
The low-ceilinged kitchen in the basement of the house is arranged as though Christmas preparations are in full swing but have just been interrupted. Battered chairs are pushed back as if the inhabitants have just left, and real food adorns the scrubbed table. Behind is a dresser, filled with rows of blue-and-white transfer-printed ceramics and dishes overflowing with freshly baked pies.
A print of an enthroned Queen Victoria, festooned with a Christmas garland, hangs over the fireplace and dominates the Victorian parlour on the ground floor. The cluttered room contains a wealth of patriotic commemorative memorabilia, not all of it antique. The patterned wallpaper was found in a chest in a friend’s attic and given to Severs as a gift.
The Regency bedroom is furnished with an elaborately carved early 19th-century mahogany bed that was probably made in France and has been opulently upholstered with a rich silk damask canopy. Personal items belonging to Severs’ imagined Jervis family, which the house follows through the generations, are scattered about.
The attic room dramatises the rigours of life in the late 19th century, when a family of six might have lived in a room such as this, and the London silk industry was in decline. A few broken chairs and a pewter kettle on a mantelpiece are the only items of furniture. Drying laundry is strung on a line near the fire.
Images: Simon Upton
For more information about visiting Dennis Severs’ House, 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London, E1 6BX, call 020 7247 4013 or visit dennissevershouse.co.uk