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Simon Pettet's tiles

March 8, 2010
by the gentle author

Anyone who has ever visited Dennis Severs’ house in Folgate St will recognise this spectacular chimneypiece in the bedroom with its idiosyncratic pediment designed to emulate the facade of Christ Church, Spitalfields. The fireplace itself is lined with an exquisite array of Delft tiles which you may have admired, but very few people today know that these tiles were made by craftsman Simon Pettet in 1985, when he was twenty years old and living in the house with Dennis Severs. Simon was a gifted ceramicist who mastered the technique of tile-making with such expertise that he could create new Delft tiles in the authentic manner which were almost indistinguishable from those manufactured in the seventeenth century.

In his tiles for this fireplace, Simon made a witty leap of the imagination, using them to create a satirical gallery of familiar Spitalfields personalities from the nineteen eighties. Today his splendid fireplace of tiles exists as a portrait of the neighbourhood at that time, though so discreetly done that unless someone pointed it out to you, it is unlikely you would ever notice amongst all the other beguiling details of Dennis Severs’ house.

Simon Pettet died of Aids in 1993, eight years after completing the fireplace and just before his twenty-eighth birthday, and today his ceramics, especially this fireplace in Dennis Severs’ house, comprise an intriguing and poignant memorial to remind us of a short but extremely productive life. Simon’s death imparts an additional resonance to the humour of his work now, which is touching in the skill he expended to conceal his ingenious achievement. As with so much in these beautiful old buildings, we admire the workmanship without ever knowing the names of the craftsmen who were responsible and Simon aspired to this worthy tradition of anonymous artisans in Spitalfields.

Once Anna Skrine (the former custodian of 27 Fournier St) told me the story, I wanted to go over to Folgate St and take a look for myself. And when I squatted down to peer into the fireplace, I could not help smiling at once to recognise Gilbert & George on the very first tile I saw. Simon had created instantly recognisable likenesses that also recalled Tenniel’s illustrations of Tweedledum & Tweedledee. Most importantly, the spontaneity, colour, texture and sense of line were all exactly as you would expect of a Delft tile. Taking my camera and tripod in hand, I spent a couple of happy hours with my head in the fireplace before emerging sooty and triumphant with this selection of photographs of Simon’s tiles for you to enjoy. Reputedly, there is a portrait of Dan Cruickshank, but it must be hidden behind the fire irons because I could not find it that day.

Mick Pedroli and David Milne, manager and curator at Dennis Severs’ house, who graciously permitted me to invade the fireplace for a morning, were part of the social circle connected to the house that included Simon in the nineteen eighties. They talked about Simon affectionately as a vivid and charismatic presence and revealed that Simon’s clothes remain there in his trunk in his room. Let me also admit my gratitude to Martin Lane for whom Simon made a fine fireplace in the Delft style for his Elder St dining room in 1988. Martin allowed me to photograph the plaque dating his fireplace, which has the order of service from Simon’s funeral in Christ Church, Spitalfields, tucked behind and concealed within the chimney breast.

A week later, I sat down with Marianna Kennedy (who did the gilding on the fireplace) and Jim Howett (who did some of the carpentry) and we enjoyed an afternoon looking at each of these tiles together, as they deliberated over the identities of the people, before arriving at a consensus, accompanied by colourful stories and engaging digressions about the individuals in question. Finally, Hugo Glendinning and Anna Skine told me about the last year of Simon’s life, when he knew he was dying and moved to 27 Fournier St to be cared for there. Hugo described a candlelit party in the last months of Simon’s life, when hundreds of people came to fill the house and celebrate with Simon. Fifteen years on, everyone in Spitalfields who knew Simon remembers him fondly.

When I had almost finished photographing all the tiles, I noticed one placed at the top right-hand side that was entirely hidden from the viewer by the wooden surround on the front of the fireplace. It was almost completely covered in soot too. David Milne used a kitchen scourer to remove the grime and we discovered this most-discreetly placed tile was a portrait of Simon himself at work making tiles. The modesty of the man was such that only someone who climbed into the fireplace, as I did, would ever find Simon’s own signature tile.

Gilbert & George.

Raphael Samuel, foremost historian of the East End.

Riccardo Cinelli , artist

Jim Howett, carpenter, whom Dennis Severs considered to be the fly on the wall in Spitalfields.

Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell, two artists, who made money on the side as housepainters.

Simon de Courcy Wheeler, photographer

Julian Humphreys, who renovated his bathroom regularly, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Scotsman, Paul Duncan, who worked for the Spitalfields Trust.

Douglas Blain, director of the Spitalfields Trust, who was devoted to Hawksmoor.

The person in this illustration of a famous event in Folgate St cannot be named for legal reasons.

Keith and Jane Bowler of Wilkes Street.

Her Majesty the Cat, known as “Madge,” watching “Come Dancing.”

Marianna Kennedy and Ian Harper, who were both students at the Slade.

Phyllis Archer and her son Rodney (featured in Saturday’s post).

Anna Skrine, secretary of the Spitalfields Trust.

Simon Pettet, designer and craftman (1965-93)

13 Responses leave one →
  1. March 8, 2010

    Wonderful to preserve Simon’s memory and work in this way.

  2. Joan permalink
    March 8, 2010

    These are lovely. I have strong memories of being at Raphael Samuel’s memorial meeting and especially of his mother Minna Keal playing the piano.

  3. March 8, 2010

    Wonderful, wonderful post. No need for me to add anything about Mr. Pettet’s work and contributions. I will go back to D. Sever’s house for a closer look. Thanks also for the auricula post. They are fabulous flowers. Reminds me why I always wanted to stay in England. Can’t get them much here in the States! Or ceramicists like Mr. Pettet either.

  4. Anne permalink
    March 8, 2010

    Absolutely delightful. What lovely tiles, I have never been to this house but I now know that I must.

  5. March 8, 2010

    What a fascinating post, I had no idea that the tiles were a contemporary record of all these wonderful people inhabiting the neighbourhood or indeed were not early tiles – I think next time I visit I’ll be tempted to view them much more closely – thank you so much for telling this amazing story.

  6. BARBARA permalink
    March 8, 2010

    Thank you for yet another fascinating post! Like many other readers I have decided that a repeat visit to DS House is required. Keep up the good work. Barbara

  7. Gary Arber permalink
    March 8, 2010

    A fantastic piece of research and photography.
    Well worth getting covered in soot for

  8. Susan Lendroth permalink
    March 9, 2010

    Dennis Severs’ house was already on my list of places I MUST SEE when I next make it over to London. Now, add my name to the list as one more person who will be sticking her head inside the fireplace to get a closer look at those amazing tiles. That will readily identify your blog readers — our own secret handshake, as it were.

  9. simon pettet permalink
    March 12, 2010

    May I add, maybe bizarrely, my delight at my namesake
    whom I never knew but admire – great beautiful craftmanship
    Simon Pettet

  10. May 18, 2010

    Simon Pettet ceramics are truely charming. I’m glad to have been introduced to it rather late by the team at The Dennis Severs House on Folgate. For those interested in contemporary blue and white tile work with an even more radical twist I recommend visiting Robert Dawson’s website: http://www.aestheticsabotage.com. Two other accomplished artists who have pushed the envelope of this English and Dutch ceramics tradition are Ann Agee (American) and Paul Scott (Cumbria UK). Google them for links to photos of their work.

  11. May 22, 2010

    I too will be sticking my head inside the fireplace! Aids extinguished too many talented and brilliant artists such as Simon Pettet and Dennis Severs, but at least their work lives on to be enjoyed and savored, hopefully for many generations to come.

  12. Sandra Cheesman permalink
    January 3, 2011

    I was at school with Simon, we all socialised at the Church Youth Club next to where his parents lived. I took a pottery class with him in school – even then I remember his work was outstanding. God bless Peanut.

  13. Paul Duncan permalink
    November 10, 2012

    There’s me. I took over from Anna Skrine at the Spitalfields Trust. Some of the best years of my life were spent living in the ruins of 17 Princelet Street with a tartan fourposter and a cat called MacDuff. Dennis was one of the most extraordinary men I ever met and I’m honoured to have been immortalised in his bedroom fireplace

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