Time Traveling in London

by Molly Mapstone, Class of 2021

How can we experience time travel through objects? Can objects be used by us today to experience, imagine, and reconstruct a more authentic version of the past? 

After climbing the stairs off the Tube, and walking a few short blocks, we were all transported into a different dimension of time. Gathered in the street outside Dennis Severs’ House, Catharine quickly counted to make sure everyone was there. Once all were accounted for, the door swung open. The curator of the house, David Miline, began reciting his brief ground rules; all intended to allow guests to have an uninterrupted, introspective visit. 

a brick building with a black door and red shutters. Foliage grows on the gutter. A gas lamp burns over the door of the building.

Dennis Severs’ House exterior. 18 Folgate Street, London. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Upon crossing the threshold of the house, it became clear that this place does not provide the normal museum experience to which we have all become accustomed. We were instructed to go directly down into the basement first, then ascend the stairs as we moved through each room. The first thing that struck me about the house was how dark it is. Lit only by candles, I found myself relying on my eyesight more than usual to move through the space. Careful to not bump into a table or a wall, I looked more closely at the objects and my surroundings. Once I adjusted to the light levels and figured out how to best navigate the small rooms around other people trying to do the same, the story of the imaginary family created in Dennis Severs’ House unfolded. 

Dennis Severs bought the house we were visiting in Spitalfields, London, 1979. As he refurbished the dilapidated house, he created what he called “still-life drama” in each of the rooms. The drama centers around the fictional 18th century Jarvis family of silk weavers. As you progress through each of the rooms in the house, you follow the family through financial success, happiness and comfort, and then eventually to their demise. Using authentic historic objects, mixed in with some more contemporary pieces, Severs’ House both recreates and reconstructs the past. 

Candle soot on the ceilings, pee in the chamber pots, and the smell of fresh lavender work together to transport you back in time as you are immersed in a house filled with objects of the past. Seeing 18th century paintings under candlelight, as they were painted and intended to be viewed, briefly suspends time and reality. If we stand in the same place to look at the same painting, in the same light, hung on the same wall with the same wallpaper, as someone in the eighteenth century had probably done so before, have we just time traveled? Or, have we experienced a carefully curated revamped version of eighteenth-century life intended to take our breath away? 

Either way, as we stepped out of the house, I was immediately more sensitive to the collision of historic and contemporary material worlds in London. Looking to the left, I took note of the giant glass office box towering over the hundreds-of-years-old townhomes in Spitalfields. The two styles of building seemed to have nothing in common other than their location.

A city street with three story brick buildings on both sides. A few people and cars line the sidewalks. At the end of the street is a glass box office building. The building is wider and taller than what is captured in the photograph.

View when exiting Dennis Severs’ House, looking left. Image courtesy British Land Developer, a company working to preserve the historic buildings of the Spitalfields. Part of their goal in this project is to revive the neighborhood by creating inhabitable mixed-use buildings. https://www.blossomstreet-e1.co.uk/

Immersive material experiences have the power to train our eyes and minds to see into history. When carefully studied and interpreted, objects can act as portals into these different times and places we often only read and dream about. Through this deliberate study of historic materials and objects, we also build the necessary skills to comprehend the present. Before entering Dennis Severs’ House, I would have never paid more than three seconds of attention to that enormous glass office box. At this moment, that office building lingers in my mind – simultaneously with the house that forced me into noticing it.

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