There are plenty of history museums in London – some grand and central, some quant and local. However, Dennis Severs’ House stands aside. In fact, its creator and mastermind, Dennis Severs himself, didn’t call it a history museum at all – he considered it to be a “still-life drama”, a unique journey. And many agree with him – Dennis Severs’ House is counted amongst the most unforgettable operatic experiences in the world.
On the surface, there’re reasons to call it a London history museum. After all, it is situated in one of the supremely well-preserved houses of Spitalfields, and tells the story of a family of Huguenot silkweavers called Jervis. This family has occupied the house for more, than a century. Their story gives us a window to glimpse at their turbulent times: riots and change of dynasty, trade and industry, fashion and hobbies.
However, you won’t see a single glass case there. The rooms, each representing a particular decade in the family’s fortunes, are left in such a state, as if the Jervises has just gone for a walk. Unread letters, unfinished tea, a wig, carelessly hung over the chair: each room is breathing with their unseen presence. No electricity is allowed there, either: the chambers are dimly glowing with candlelight.
The story of the family begins in the earliest years of the 18th century, represented in the first room: frugal kitchen, domain of a thrifty Huguenot housewife. This lady’s unyielding eyes will look at you from the small portrait. She has every reason to be unyielding: she had survived monstrous religious persecution in her native France, escaping to England by chance. She was far from being the only one. In fact, by the start of our journey there is already a solid Huguenot community in London. They worship at French Church on Threadneedle Street, set up soup kitchen for poor compatriots, help newly arrived refugees to find employment.
Next room on the ground floor, the eating parlour, is still dark and modest. But some hints of comfort may give us a clue of the flourishing industry, which will soon grow out of cottages like this. Indeed, a lot of booming businesses of the later centuries originated in the family enterprises set in candle-lit houses. For example, the Courtauld Textiles, gargantuan and multinational, started in a small shop of Huguenot widow Louise Courtauld (another French refugee).
As you go upstairs, the things get brighter. Quite literally – the hues are softer and brighter now, the elegant drawing room glowing with neoclassical harmony. Looks like the owners’ good eye for silk design and fashion allowed them to succeed in the industry. Of course, they always have to keep a hand on the pulse – fashion changes rapidly, and last year’s patterns have to be sold at much reduced prices. Meanwhile, foreign competition doesn’t sleep – fashionable Court ladies still prefer to wear silk, smuggled from Italy or France, no matter how much is costs or how much His Majesty disapproves. Although, paradoxically, this clandestine fashion allows some Spitalfields silkweavers to make extra money by branding their goods as smuggled and selling them with pretended caution. Did the Jervis family engage in such peculiar marketing? We simply don’t know.
Now, up and up again – the blooming rococo awaits you upstairs. To an extent, it is mirroring the creations of now-prosperous Jervises. Spitalfields silk was famous for light-hearted, delicate flowers, blooming in its patterns. And the vanity table of new Mrs. Jervis is now the epitome of delicacy – feathers and pearls, fans and laces. There is a little porcelain tea cup left after the breakfast, splendid gown hanging nearby. This is a far cry from the first mistress of the house, isn’t it?
Not that everything in their life is sweetness and light, though. The length of London Season, when silkweaving and other luxury trades usually find employment, has shrunk dramatically. It used to be from November to June, but now the upper-classes stay in London only from March to July. Silkweaving business is also quite prone to force majeure, such as unexpected Court mourning. It virtually cancels a whole season of colourful silks and can put about 15, 000 people in the industry out of job.
So, the ghost of hunger and destitution always looms even over the elegant houses of master weavers. This atmosphere of constant risk created just as constant strife for self-improvement: for new skills, new knowledge, better education. Education is, indeed, held in great esteem by Huguenot silkweavers – including, we might presume, the master of this house. Like many of his colleagues, he might spend his free hours on the meetings of local scientific societies. Contrary to popular belief, these institutions were not created by benevolent royal patronage – they were initiated by groups of curious artisans. Monmouth Head tavern, for example, housed the meetings of Spitalfields Mathematical Society. The participants met every Saturday, and any member who failed to answer a question in mathematics asked by another member was fined twopence. May be, that’s where Mr. Jervis had gone? Let’s hope he revised well…
Let your eyes linger on this picture of enlightenment and prosperity, while it lasts, because upstairs a new century will greet you. The advent of power loom and cheap outsourcing to provinces have all but destroyed London silkweaving. Mr. Jervis’ contemporary and colleague, Stephen Wilson, wrote, that London had lost “all small fancy works”. Of course, silkweavers didn’t go down without a fight: there were marches and riots, pleas to the government to protect the ancient craft from the advent of industrial competition. But they could only postpone the inevitable. In 1824, an Act was passed which basically left them at the mercy of the free market. Poverty descended upon Spitalfields, and it could not be shaken off for another century and a half. Once-prosperous Jervises are now forced to take lodgers. We are, in fact, now in a small and shabby room, belonging to one of the tenants. The bell, tolling outside, hails the dawn of the new era. As we know now, it will be an age of unparalleled industrial success and imperial expansion; however, the Jervises would hardly be able to take part in it…
A visit to Dennis Severs’ House will be especially convenient, if you are visiting London for a weekend: it’s open on Sunday afternoon, 12–16 p.m. The house is located at 18, Folgate Street; the nearest Tube station will be Liverpool Street.