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Dennis Severs’ House recreates his eccentric tours based on found tapes

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

It is one of the strangest museums in the UK, created by an eccentric Californian who adored British history and wanted to share his passion with everyone else.

More than two decades after his death, the spirit of Dennis Severs will once again run riot at the museum he created thanks to the remarkable lockdown discovery of hundreds of cassette tapes stuffed in cupboards.

The tapes shine new light on the life of a man and a museum which are perhaps not as well known as they should be. David Hockney once described his visit to the museum as “one of the world’s five top experiences”.

Severs came to London from the US in the 1960s. After dropping out of a law career he bought a horse and carriage and offered tours of London. He was essentially a showman and, incredibly, was allowed to keep his carriage in the Royal Mews.

In 1979 he bought a run-down Georgian house in Folgate Street, Spitalfields, and embarked on a mission to create the history of London inside it.

The dining room at Dennis Severs&#x002019; House
The dining room at Dennis Severs’ House. Severs reconfigured the house to tell the story of an imaginary Huguenot family who had lived there since the house was built in 1724. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

He invented a fictional family who lived in the house from the late 17th to 19th centuries and created rooms that told different stories of their lives. Entering a room feels like stepping in to a painting that has exploded into three dimensions.

Severs’ friend, the art historian and TV presenter Dan Cruickshank, said: “Dennis was always up front about this. It was never meant to be an accurate historical creation of a specific moment, it was an evocation of a world, it was essentially a theatre set.”

He stuffed rooms with period objects or he made them himself. What looks like an expensive late-17th-century swag over a fireplace was, in fact, made from varnished walnuts strung together. The magnificent four-poster bed he slept in was pallets and polystyrene.

There were sounds and also smells, particularly memorable in the Victorian poverty and squalor room. “They were disgusting,” recalled Cruickshank. “Whatever it was, it was real.”

The Victorian room at Dennis Severs&#x002019; House
The Victorian room at Dennis Severs’ House. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Severs lived in the house and would conduct the tours. Tourists were sometimes terrified, said Cruickshank. “You were paying money but he didn’t want you to feel you had control of him or the house. He would say ‘feel don’t think, look don’t speak … open yourself to the experience you are going to have’. He wasn’t talking about facts and figures, he was talking about the essence of life.”

At times he would throw people out, tossing their entrance fees after them. “It had a wonderful effect on the people left behind: they thought, ‘Christ, that could happen to me.’”

Severs died in 2000 aged 51 and the house has continued to be run as a museum.

During lockdown staff were astonished to discover about 200 cassette tapes stuffed in cupboards that feature Severs’ tours as well as his ideas and thoughts on people and sounds he liked.

Related: Hidden London tram station opens to public for first time in 70 years

It was odd to hear them, said Cruickshank. “The barbed comments, the accusations, the instructions, the keeping his audience in its place so they would listen to him … that is all in the tapes.”

The tapes have been distilled down to create a new tour for visitors when it reopens on 29 July. An actor will conduct the tours. It is not Severs but, in its own way, it is, said Cruickshank.

“Dennis was an amazing character and his spirit does live on with these tapes. There is life after death, he is back from the grave … we have resurrected him. We’ve brought Dennis back and he would love that.”

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