Do you believe in ghosts?
I do. I don’t mean that I think you can see floaty sheet covered people wandering around of an evening. But that that people leave something of themselves in the places they’ve been, they imbue the walls of a house with their spirit, their footsteps echo in the tunnels of a city, layers of wall paper in a cupboard and layers of soot in a fireplace provide an unbroken link with the people who lived there before.
Dennis Severs’ House is a place where ghosts live. It’s like stepping into a beautiful eighteenth century oil painting. Lit solely by candles, oil lamps and firelight, it smells of beeswax, oranges and toast cooked over the fire, and you can hear church bells ringing in the distance and a maid making up the fire in the next room.
You are instructed to walk around in silence, to better use your eyes, ears and nose. Shake off the rushing and jangling of modern life. Adjust to seeing by candlelight and breathing deeply.
The house belongs to a Huguenot weaving family, but there are references to Dickens in the pages of writing on the desk in the corner of the drafty, dusty, sparely furnished attic; to Hogarth in the abandoned debris of last night’s dinner party in the dining room; to Queen Victoria in the nicely stuffed sitting room with invitations jostling for space on the mantle; and, I fancy, to The Tailor of Gloucester, in the cosy kitchen, where sugar mice peep from under the sparkly glazing of the cups on the dresser. The house cat watches accusingly as you pick your way carefully around his home.
In their promotional material, they caution that it’s not a museum, and you must not expect to see neatly labelled artefacts. This is it’s strength. It’s an experience, a way of seeing things, a mediation.