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Simon Pettet's tiles at Dennis Severs' House

September 4, 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.

Ricardo Cinalli, artist.

Jim Howett, furniture maker, whom Dennis Severs saw as the fly on the wall in Spitalfields.

Ben Langlands & 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 individuals portrayed in this notorious incident 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.

Rodney Archer with his mother Phyllis, of Fournier St

Anna Skrine, secretary of the Spitalfields Trust.

Simon’s discreetly place self-portrait.

The fireplace Simon Pettet made for Martin Lane’s house in Elder St, with the order of service for Simon’s funeral tucked behind.

Simon Pettet, designer and craftsman (1965-93)

8 Responses leave one →
  1. September 4, 2010

    Fab.

  2. Clement permalink
    September 4, 2010

    How beautiful,….how very sad.

  3. Charlotte permalink
    September 5, 2010

    Thank you so much for your blog. I love the work that you do and the insight into this wonderful area which has changed so much over the years, and its people. This piece was especially moving.

  4. jeannette permalink
    September 10, 2010

    i feel as if i’m spamming you with comments, please forgive. this is absolutely wonderful — the recovery of such lives, thanks so much.

  5. the gentle author permalink*
    September 10, 2010

    thankyou for your passion, jeannette

  6. September 11, 2010

    Have visited this fascinating blog several times, each ‘tour’ revealing more and more interesting features: it’s high time I said so, Gentle Author. So here’s un grand merci from a former London resident old enough to recall working in a greengrocer’s offices at the ‘old’ Covent Garden market one summer in undergraduate days. The photos in the two related Spitalfields posts evoke some memories of that – and, of course, there’s so much more.
    I missed a chance to see Denis Severs’s fab house while he was alive, and have been kicking myself ever since, so delighted by this particular post.
    Thank you again.

  7. October 8, 2011

    beautiful tiles ,i really enjoyed looking at them.

  8. Michèle Gaymard permalink
    October 1, 2016

    shaking life vibrant art lost in english c’est comme “l’écho des étoiles”, magnifique découverte

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