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Searching for Spitalfields

15 July 2015 | Imogen Greenberg

Spitalfields is often listed these days for its coffee shops, record shops and vintage clothes, coming in at a higher price for their appearance of being run down and retro. So London Calling went in search of historic Spitalfields, looking for remnants of the past that predated pop ups...

The back streets of Spitalfields are full of tall and dainty houses made of beautiful old bricks, with wooden shutters and old-fashioned street lamps outside. Folgate Street is just like this, until you look to the end of the street and looming large is a towering glass building, a reminder that it sits between Shoreditch High Street and Commercial Road, perched on the edge of the City. A gas lamp burning above the door marks the Dennis Severs’ House out as different from the other period houses on the street, and it is the only one to presume to call itself a time capsule.

The house is a stage set less concerned with facts and artefacts, than the mood and feeling of the past. This house is still occupied, by four generations of the Jervis family who have just left the room before you enter it. The family is there in smell, sound and sensation. Dennis Severs died in 1999, and it is his friend David Milne who now curates the house, greeting you at the door. But it is Dennis’ words and philosophy that permeate the house, the motto that ‘you either see it or you don’t’. The journey is yours, David tells you, because you get out of it what you are willing to suspend, to see, to imagine. In Dennis’ day, he lived in the house as its 18th century occupants might have done, both for his own enjoyment and to harvest the atmosphere. He lived in his own art piece.

You pass through the house and through generations of the family, through monarchs, and through passing prosperity, right to the top of the house to a derelict bedroom. Here, the dust has descended, the ceiling caved in. There are notices from a landlady, in a loft that could be the home of Bill Sykes or Scrooge. We have passed in to the 19th century, and in to poverty too. Each room is richly detailed not just with objects, but possessions, things attached to a person and a story. One room imitates a Hogarth painting, as if the brawling men had just left. There’s an upturned chair, broken plates, spilled tobacco. Dennis Severs question sits on the mantelpiece, asking ‘would you recognise a painting if it fell out of the frame?’. Every room is like walking through rich paintings of other people’s lives, totally imagined but nonetheless evocative.

On the other side of Commercial Street, 19 Princelet Street is a historic building too, but it has taken a different attitude to its historic bricks and mortar. Whereas you walk in to Dennis Severs’ House and leave yourself, your past, and your voice at the door, you take your story and your identity in to 19 Princelet Street with you. Not just a historic house, it is foremost a Museum of Immigration and Diversity. It doesn’t so much tell a single story, as draw you in to one being played out before you, of which you too are a part.

The exhibition Suitcases and Sanctuary was created through collaborations between local primary school students, with artists, writers, filmmakers and actors, exploring shared pasts but always encouraged to put themselves in others’ shoes. It explores the people, backgrounds, sounds and languages of the East End. The Sounds of Spitalfields is as if a microphone was held up for three hundred years, with languages and music, ringing bells and bird song. 19 Princelet Street is a wonderful coming together of the accumulated experience of the present with the visible artefacts of the past. Monica Ali, best known for her novel Brick Lane and a supporter of 19 Princelet Street, said here ‘our pasts meet our future’. Its Chair of Trustees, Susie Symes, says that it is no single thing that makes it unique, not that it houses the second oldest synagogue in London, or that it was once home to a family of Huguenot refugees, but the many layers of architecture, stories and people, including its present incarnation as a museum, that makes it so significant. She says ‘we need places like this, so we can hold on to enough of the past to understand it, and use it to shape a better future’.

The Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust owns Dennis Severs’ House, waging a slow battle to save Spitalfields since the 1970s. They helped save 19 Princelet Street thirty years ago for the separate charity that now runs it. Now, they are fighting a campaign to Save Norton Folgate from a proposed development that would build offices, up to thirteen stories high, right opposite Dennis Severs’ House, bulldozing historic buildings including the medieval courtyard of The Water Poet pub, and original Victorian warehouses. David Milne says the development will totally destroy this residential area.

Susie Symes wants to preserve at least some of this historic fabric because diverse architecture, built by generations of people, holds distinctiveness, character and essence of place. It brings a sense of place that people can attach a sense of home to, when they are newcomers to a community. Susie also thinks its important to preserve spaces where people from totally different backgrounds can meet, an opportunity for genuine diversity in the fabric of the streets, which vast glass atriums do not provide. Her first example of a place like this is the 24-hour bagel place on Brick Lane. The second is of course 19 Princelet Street, where many of the children who passed through this door in the last 15 years developed such strong attachments they have never left, some volunteering and one now even a trustee.

Whilst searching for historic Spitalfields, I found parts are disappearing almost before our eyes. Perhaps Norton Folgate, and Spitalfields in general for that matter, is just a pile of old bricks. But there is value in the accumulated experience of Spitalfields, of so many people, from a multitude of backgrounds, settling, living, working and worshipping here. There have been other developments before, and there will be more after so saving it means saving a very small corner of London. But it is in the hope that it might save something, either in memory or reality, of what it has come to represent. If you want to glimpse the past, or see how it might matter in the present, head to both Dennis Severs’ House and 19 Princelet Street, for two totally different approaches on what the story of Spitalfields can offer.

Dennis Severs House is open Sunday daytime, Monday lunchtime and every Monday and Wednesday evening for Silent Night. See the website for prices and to book.

19 Princelet is rarely open to the public except for group bookings, but will be open for a one-off weekend on 5th-6th September, from 2 to 6pm. Please see the website for more details or follow @19pst.

To find out more about the Save Norton Folgate campaign, please see their website. So far, there have been thousands of complaints and the Council’s verdict comes on the 21st July.
 

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