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VM inspiration: Dennis Severs' house, Spitalfields

American artist Dennis Severs’ (1948 – 1999) famous still-life drama in a Georgian house in Spitalfields, London, conjures up the lives of the Jervis’, an imaginary Huguenot family of silk-weavers, who virtually inhabit the house as a series of mise en scene.

Many Huguenots, French Protestants ejected from France by Louis the XVI (1754 – 1793), settled in the UK, as the informative Huguenot Museum in Rochester explains. They contributed to the growing economy as skilled craftsmen, meeting a new demand for luxury as Georgian Britain was transformed by the agrarian and early industrial revolutions.

Here the piano noble, the sitting room on the first floor, was used to entertain guests and was therefore the most richly decorated room, and the best lit with more generous use of candles. Let’s take a closer look at the house with home VM in mind.

Grade II listed, and operated by the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, the house is lit only by candles. The tour commences in the basement kitchen, displaying an array of blue and white china. While it might be true that this collection belongs to a later period than the Georgian, that is to miss the point. The purpose of the display is to remind visitors that the luxury of the upper floors was built on the poverty and hard work of the below-stairs staff.

Charmingly, a ball of black fur was placed on one of the rush seats, all rather more dimly seen in a kitchen lit only by two candles. Visitors seemed to assume it was a hat or a taxidermy cat until it unexpectedly flicked its ears. Hereafter, without leaving its seat it was stroked by all visitors. Surely the instruction not to touch anything doesn’t include petting the cat?

Ten rooms, spread over four stories and a basement, were gradually transformed by Severs, who lived in the house, or rather living museum, until his death.

The house was intended as a performance piece, as though the residents had just vacated a room, with a focus on the momentary moods and feelings that this produces rather than strict authenticity. It is illuminating to visit as an inspiration for VM, particularly home displays, as it differs significantly from the wider experience of visiting similar properties managed and owned by the National Trust, English Heritage, the Historic Houses Association, or 68 Dean Street.

Instead, it seems closely modeled on Winterthur, the museum of American decorative arts in Wilmington, Delaware. The home of the Du Pont’s, Winterthur was opened to the public while the duPont’s were still in residence, and later the 175-roomed house was left to the nation. It became one of the founding centres for the discipline of Design History (Hornsey College of Art being the other), which is now taught in preference to more limited applied design disciplines across all design colleges.

Winterthur has long sought to ‘ring the changes,’ partly to showcase seasonal festivities in the house, partly also to ensure that visitors return. For example, at Christmas the house features decorations, newly made in the style of those used at the time by the army of volunteers the house commands.

Here Severs emulates Winterthur with a lavishly laid table, complete with table linen against a mass of Delft pottery, contrasting with the poverty of the collection in the kitchen. Amid the display, two figures of the Asian Bodhisattva of the mercy, Guanyin, are rather incongruously placed.

In each room is a tableau, perhaps a verisimilitude of Vermeer (1632 - 1675) and other Dutch interior painters’ work. This table top in the ground floor smoking room cum gentleman’s study is an example, and separated only from VM display by the fact that none of the artifacts are new, and that the scattered ash from the pipe would have no place in VM.

Given the volume of objects in the house, in contrast to the simplicity of actual Georgian rooms of the period, it seems as though the rooms are inspired perhaps by the serendipity of Severs’ finds rather than thorough academic research. Nevertheless Severs clearly had an innately understanding of the power of display focus. The house is well worth a visit, and will continue to provide inspiration for retail brands that conceive of themselves as a ‘House of…’ This is one version of such a house.