Aut Visum Aut Non

A man was born in California in 1948’s closing months who was destined to make something quite, quite bonkers in London. Just off Spitalfields on Folgate, having been “drawn to London by English light” (already bonkers), Dennis Severs purchased a house and, like Jeanette Winterson and bonkers artists Gilbert & George, renovated it.

However, being magnificently bonkers, Severs didn’t politely repaint the walls and strip out some annoying 1950s fittings and whatever else it is my father is currently doing to a house he’s acquired in Dorset, nor did he simply limit himself to fixing the roof, installing some electrics, and having protracted arguments about different forms of environmentally-friendly plumbing as my mother & step-father did when they, too, bought a derelict property and turned it into something legally habitable.

No, our Dennis was a man with a vision. A glorious, batshit vision. For twenty years, until his death, he resided in this property, living in a museum. Somewhere between a set piece, a really involved one-man LARP, an exercise in time-travel, and the most elegant excuse for being a card-carrying capital-H Hoarder you could possibly devise, his house on Folgate was made into installation art history:

Not only did he turn each room into a tableaux about the mysterious Jervis family, with food left on the table and in some cases playing cards strewn on the floor (you can just about see them in this picture), not only did he live in the middle of this nutjobbery, effectively inventing an art form to justify his wacko spending habits (God bless you, sir), devising a sense of immediacy and imminence of an invisible family…

(From basement…)

(To attic…)

… After his death it was turned into a public attraction.

Meaning you can visit this wonderful monstrosity, which is precisely what Emma and I did last week.

We’ve tried to explain the experience to each other, standing in the suddenly-loud street afterward. The weirdness, for me, of the smells and creaking floorboards, reminiscent of so many other experiences (Installation History seems to have been an unusually vibrant museum market where I grew up); the nuttiness of the scheme; the fact that on entering a cat ran past us; the way almost all the food was real (smells, again, and the acknowledged difference in weight and visual texture and believability that results); the piped sound of voices from other rooms lending the air of having just missed real people, and above all:

You will complete this journey in silence.

After a while, holding my breath, listening to the voices of the past while peering at their goods, the enterprise began to feel grubby. I felt like a ghost of the present, haunting the past. As if I’d wandered backwards in time to gawk at the private doings of normal people. The pressure of the experience is startlingly immense in that moment. (Slightly spoiled by the necessary presence of volunteers to stop people nicking things or walking into the open candle flames).

“You’re about to begin a journey into the past,” Emma sagely mentioned, mimicking the doorman at the house, “As he stabs away at his iPad, somewhat ruining that illusion.”

“Yes,” quoth I, “but did you notice he had the same face as the portraits? I think he may have been generated by the building.”

After the better part of an hour stalking an immaculate set composed of imagined history and funded by a man who thought nothing of filling the master bedroom with china pots on tiny gold shelves (a shelf for each of them), this seemed a perfectly rational explanation.


The house is on the south side of Folgate Street, and dates from approximately 1724. It is one of a terrace of houses (Nos 6-18) built of brown brick with red brick dressings, over four storeys and with a basement.

Bric-a-Brac and Indolence 5: War, Huh, What is it good for?

My continuing mission, to seek out well-known museums and their gift shops, to review what no one could be bothered to review before for the very reason that it is a frankly bizarre choice, was recently combined with a powerful desire to have a cream tea and cry over dead soldiers with a new friend. Happily, the Imperial War Museum, aside from being an imposing edifice and exceptionally well-stocked in matters relating to the two World Wars, also boasts a tea room and a gift shop in which to sate these strange longings. And apparently doesn’t mind two odd-looking women wandering through their exhibits burbling about poetry.

We then wandered off to the South Bank for cocktails at the BFI bar, which is irrelevant to the review but gives me the opportunity to promote one of my favourite bars (it’s right by the river side, does lovely snacks and cocktails, and you can sit outside in deckchairs all year round watching people go through the book market), and to throw in another route map:

Imperial War Museum, Lambeth

Imposing and popular for father/son bonding days

Number of Gift Shops: 2 (one general and integrated, one exhibition-specific on a higher floor).

Before I surge on with this particular review I must declare a bias that may or may not affect the outcome: as regular readers of this blog will be aware, I have an embarrassing and overblown emotional thing for T. E. Lawrence, and as visitors to the Imperial War Museum will be aware, a number of items relating to him are on display there, including some of his clothing from the desert campaigns, a bust, and his Brough Superior. The museum also boasts an extremely tempting book about him in the gift shop which features his drawings and photographs and other ephemera, so in the unlikely event that this review starts to sound like the foot-stamping tantrum of a spoilt toddler it’s because I realised I couldn’t throw money after anything and was not allowed to buy this book or the ceramic bottle of sarsaparilla cordial that I was coveting.

The Imperial War Museum gift shop is like the History Channel made solid, and that is both a compliment and a condemnation. The books, which focus almost exclusively on the World Wars (although from just about every conceivable angle), muted and monochrome with explosions of red, and the same fonts used over and over in bleak slabs and faux-stencils.

The shop itself is like a strange collision between a toy shop (the children’s section features a selection of model aeroplanes, spy games, and tank spotting guides the like of which could not possibly be found elsewhere) and some strange retro kitsch emporium. Keep Calm And Carry On merchandise is rife; Bakelite rotary dial phones, fake ration books, “Home Front” fudge rations and the aforementioned sarsaparilla cordial litter the place as if it’s the TARDIS crash-landed in a somewhat inaccurate 1940s grocer’s.

Unusually, it has a section devoted to music (which is, unsurprisingly, music of the wars and plays heavily on nostalgia for swing and ragtime), and a variety of miniature replica medals; the thought of purchasing the latter makes me enormously uncomfortable. The shop spills out onto the forecourt in the same manner as that at the London Museum (see previous Bric-a-Brac and Indolence posts for review) and heralds untold delights within in the form of a £500-or-so aviator jacket on prominent display. The untold delights never quite deliver, although there are, bafflingly, bouncy rubber eggs.

One area in which the gift shop does excel, and which poses the most danger to the wallet, is their selection of wartime propaganda posters. It is by no means as broad as the fascinating exhibition the museum held some years ago of propaganda posters, but it’s enough to tickle the fancy of anyone into retro art, or anyone who really wants to wake up to Winston Churchill’s face.