Historical Slumming

The Dennis Severs house in East London could in many respects be described as anti-thetical to a National Trust property. Where the former attempts to perfectly reconstruct and restore the formal aspects of building interiors, Severs paid little attention to historical accuracy; some of the rooms reflect the right of Queen Victoria, King William and back to the Georgian period (not to mention the photos of Severs, the Queen Elizabeth coronation mug and the William and Kate marriage mug). Severs seems to have constructed the house in artistic terms, attempting to instantiate a Hogarth painting, a Dickens novel or a Gilray print as the impression of a lived experience; a black cat sharpens it claws on the furniture while half drunk cups of tea rest next to half eaten scones on a table lit by the flicker of a candle. Much of the house feels like walking through a Dutch still life painting, with its accumulation of textures fitfully lit against the darkness with the light filtering through the windows. The accumulations of bric-a-brac create the perfect background for this sensation, even if much of the detritus simply looks the part rather than being of any appropriate period. Much of this impression is due to layers of grime; cobwebs cover much of the house while the garret’s ceiling is broken. What the nearby 19 Princelet Street achieves through desuetude, Sever’s 18 Folgate Street achieves through contrivance.

The difficulty rises when you ask whether Severs has created something antithetical to the heritage industry or subsumed a part of it. The sensation of smells from the tea and the heat from a gas lamp are acute, but it’s difficult not to be reminded of the similar ambitions of somewhere like Yorvik or to compare the taped conversations played in the background with some of the more dubious multimedia experiments of various historical buildings. There is a sense of escapism in the Severs House that is present but perhaps curtailed in the National Trust’s properties. It’s also difficult not to feel irritated by the various notes from Severs that are littered around the house with helpful hints on how to interpret it in the absence of an official historical narrative. Walking round London afterwards, I visit a sphinx on Shaftesbury Avenue and Dorothy Annan’s murals on the old Fleet building, before spending sometime in the Tate looking at the William Morris wallpaper and stained glass designs, Canova’s sleeping nymph sculptures and Della Robbia ceramics.

A few weeks later I travel to Twickenham in order to visit Strawberry Hill. As a place this ranks alongside Pugin’s church at Cheadle or the Leighton House for me as one of the foundation points of the gothic revival. This is of course, regency gothick and accordingly has a rather light and airy quality to it; the exterior with its crenellations and spires is painted a gleaming white while the paint and gilding on the interior vaulting makes them more like Islamic muqharnas than anything that might be encountered in an English cathedral. The house remains devoid of contents and many of the rooms feature bare wooden boards or striations of decoration, such as a remain gothic paper layered over Walpole’s grisaille paper. The effect is perhaps more realistic than the National Trust approach of remorsely stripping everything back to a single period and replacing sold contents with similar items from the same period, but it’s difficult not to feel a preference for the historical slumming approach (some stained glass replacing medieval glass blown out during the war looks rather more like Mondrian than anything from the gothic revival), particularly since Walpole’s original conception was essentially a fantasia, mixing red damask wallpapers with papier mache gothic replicas to create something resembling a stage set. What does remain are items the ceilings, fireplaces (varying between Italian marble and replicas of Abbey tombs) and stained glass (often Flemish showing a mixture of Biblical scenes, flowers, birds and everyday scenes). The following week I’m back in Twickenham, visiting Orlean House and its exhibition on architecture in Richmond as well as the interior of the octagon designed by James Gibbs. The nearby river is swollen with the plants from its banks submerged beneath its waters; as the deay wears on the tide causes it to rise up to cover the road outside Orleans House.