Whenever anybody asks his job, Mick Pedroli claims he works in admin. This is not true, but the truth is not all that simple. Mick in fact runs the house of 18 Folgate street in Spitalfields on behalf of his friend, the late artist Dennis Severs.
This house is no ordinary house either. As a secondary vent for his artistic temperament, Dennis was an avid collector and began filling each of the ten rooms with 18th century antiques. Not content solely with this, he created an imaginary Huguenot silk weaver family called the Jervises to co-exist with him in the house.
The house was made open to the public so that his audience may surround themselves in the Jervises daily existence. It became a living painting where you would find unmade beds, half-eaten breakfasts, an uncleared dinner table from the night before, wigs hanging on the side of chairs as if thrown off after a busy day and the embers still smouldering in the fireplace. Dennis wanted his audience to feel as if the occupants had just left the room and for the viewer to fill in the gaps, in other words, to complete the puzzle with too few pieces.
A Californian by birth, Dennis was drawn to our little island by the “English light” and moved into the bohemian part of London called Spitalfields, a cultural hub for artists and writers such as Gilbert & George, Jeanette Winterson and Raphael Samuel. He “worked inside out to create what turned out to be a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbour the light and the spirit of various ages”. You can see the painstaking details within every little corner. The fireplace in Dennis’ room took a special fascination with me. The tiles inside were designed by Denis’ partner, Simon Pettit. A prolific potter, he took inspiration from the tiles you see above the kitchen sink created by the brilliant Daniel Marot who was furniture designer to King William III. These contemporary creations each depicts characters both Dennis and Simon knew from the locale of Spitalfields in its groundbreaking days.
This house is now Mick Pedroli’s life. Mick claims that the energy of the house with it leaking roof, crumbling walls and echoic whisperings, is like a maelstrom. It is all-consuming. He no longer lives in the house since the passing of Dennis, and maintains the importance of having a real existence outside the house. Despite coming across as such a certified Londoner, Mick is in fact Dutch. He ran a very successful coffee shop in Amsterdam which Dennis used to visit regularly. The two became firm friends and Dennis used to regularly praise Mick for his organisation skills and then promptly state that Mick would be the only one he would ever ask to help him run 18 Folgate Street. The request became increasingly insistent when in 1995 Mick decided “to take the plunge”, so to speak, and move to London. He proved very much the grounding balance to Dennis’ steely perfectionist vision and has remained there ever since, embracing Dennis’ house with full zeal, even after Dennis died of cancer in 1999.
Together with his friend, David Milne, Mick spends his days painstakingly adding unrehearsed details to each of the ten rooms: re-creasing the bed sheets for that “just got out of bed” look; chopping some bread on the bread board as if it were “about to be toasted”; half filling wine glasses; arranging the breakfast table to make it look like the occupants ate in a rush and left without time to clear up. Dennis called it his “still life drama” and is evocative of the Mary Celeste style.
Chatting together casually in the kitchen, it is evident to see that this room is comparably the warmest and least prententious of the ten, and also a clear favourite of Mick’s. With a mug in his hand and leg haphazardly slung over the arm of his chair he adds that he is careful to stress to people that this is not a museum but more of an artistic experience. You are left to wander around the house at will. Talking is not allowed as it ruins the ambience and the effect of total immersion. Each room has its own sensory vision. The smells, noises and even temperatures are carefully observed to complete each atmosphere. The National Trust often sends curators in order to learn more about creating atmosphere. Even I was so totally immersed in the moment that the abruptness of the maid’s bell made me jump with fright.
Mick also goes on to say that many people miss the point of 18 Folgate Street altogether, and feel disappointed by all the historical inaccuracies. Mick retorts that this is not a museum but a house for your imagination to run rampant. The other extreme is where visitors take the experience a little too literally. Mick once got into an argument with a lady claiming to be a direct descendant of the Jervis family. She obviously didn’t see reason and was promptly ejected from the house with a full refund.
The overall effect is mesmerising and will stay with you for a long time. Jeanette Winterson once said “fashions come and go, but there are permanences, vulnerable but not forgotten that Dennis sought to communicate”. This seems poignant, since Dennis is no longer around, yet at the same time his energy and spirit grows the more people discover his visionary house. I urge you to step inside the house David Hockney once described as one of the great “opera” experiences. Along with the spirits of the Jervises and Dennis himself, Mick will be there waiting for you on the doorsteps, openarmed and full of zeal.
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– with more stories on Dennis Severs’ House