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Simon Pettet’s Tiles

March 11, 2020
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. The fireplace itself is lined with an exquisite array of Delft tiles which you may have admired, but very few 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 an authentic manner, which were almost indistinguishable from those manufactured in the seventeenth century.

In his tiles for this fireplace, Simon made a leap of the imagination, creating 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 overwhelming detail 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 a poignant memorial of a short but 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.

When I squatted down to peer into the fireplace, I could not help smiling 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 Delft tiles. Taking my camera and tripod in hand, I spent a couple of hours with my head in the fireplace before emerging sooty and triumphant with this selection of photographs.

When I finished photographing all the tiles, I noticed one placed at the top right-hand side that was almost entirely hidden from the viewer by the wooden surround on the front of the fireplace. It was completely covered in soot too. After I used a kitchen scourer to remove the grime, I 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, 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 & Nikki Bell, Artists who made extra money as housepainters

Simon de Courcy Wheeler, Photographer

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

Scotsman, Paul Duncan, 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 & Jane Bowler of Wilkes St

Her Majesty the Cat, known as ‘Madge,’ watching ‘Come Dancing’

Marianna Kennedy & Ian Harper who were both students at the Slade

Phyllis & her son Rodney Archer

Anna Skrine, Secretary of the Spitalfields Trust

Simon Pettet, Designer & Craftman (1965-93)

Dennis Severs House, 18 Folgate St, Spitalfields, E1 6BX

You may also like to read about

Dennis Severs Menagerie

Isabelle Barker’s Hat

Rodney Archer’s Christmas

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Julia Harrison permalink
    March 11, 2020

    What an extraordinary and moving story. Thank you for sharing Simon Pettet’s remarkable work with us.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 11, 2020

    Fantastic stuff! I absolutely love these…

    And very clever the way he has dressed the figures in some eighteenth century clothes so that you have to look closely to realise they are modern people.

    What a brilliant legacy to leave to the house and the Spitalfields area.

    Thank you Simon, and thank you GA for sharing (and getting sooty!)

  3. March 11, 2020

    Such stunning tiles, with such humour and skill. and fitting in so perfectly in this astonishing house. So easily overlooked as original Delft tiles! What an enormous talent Simon Pettet had at such a young age, but such a tragically short life. Thank you for these wonderful photos.

  4. Greta Kelly permalink
    March 11, 2020

    Thank you for this uplifting blog, never miss them. I usually read the headlines of my online newspaper first, then your blog. I have switched in the last few days! I’m sure you can all guess why!

  5. March 11, 2020

    Such creativity and talent. Thank you GA for sharing this poignant story about Simon…and for making the effort to climb inside the fireplace to find that hidden tile.

  6. Poyntz Pauline permalink
    March 11, 2020

    I am so passionate about tiles and so this blog was especially welcome. I would love to visit 18 Folgate Street and will surely make it my business to discover this treasure . What do I need to know?

  7. March 11, 2020

    I can’t describe how much I love these tiles. Simon was a rare talent and thank you GA for sharing his fine work.

  8. Peter permalink
    March 11, 2020

    A remarkable talent touched with humour –
    they look just like antique delft tiles. A sad loss.

  9. Saba permalink
    March 11, 2020

    Strong craftsmanship, an understanding of day-to-day life, and sometimes a bit bawdy — a description of both antique Dutch tiles and the tiles shown here. Somehow, this feels like a modern staging of a Shakespearean play.

  10. March 11, 2020

    Dare I say, this mantlepiece and tiles should appear in ANY design compendium on the topic, forevermore. Even before I learned of the significance and creativity of the tiles, I was stunned by the lavish ornamentation of the display — and I’ll admit I am a sucker for the white/blue ceramics, staged on-top.
    But, as ever, the story-behind-the-story wins the day. Can’t you just imagine the moment when
    Simon decided — shazaam! — those clever drawings could be translated into ceramic tiles and further enhance the already-insanely-unique mantlepiece? As if the drawings hopped out of his sketchbook, demanding to be saved for posterity? And Madge makes another appearance.
    Thanks for this heartfelt post.

  11. March 11, 2020

    The Tiles are So Beautiful!!????????

  12. julibelle permalink
    March 11, 2020

    I’ve kept pictures of these tiles in a pinterest account for a long time…but I knew little about them, only that I loved their charm and pleasantly personal humor. Very pleased to finally have a name for their creator and sad to hear he is no longer with his friends in Spitialfields.

  13. Jason Dowler permalink
    March 11, 2020

    Dear Simon and Dennis, such fine and vibrant men and always such great company, were good friends in my Spitalfields years (1983-1988) and beyond and were frequent visitors to 37 Fournier Street where I lived with the late John Gaze. My tile is somewhere in that fireplace where I am represented by the scales of justice and a Greek lyre. John’s tile shows him from behind, sitting in a high wing-backed chair with just his extended right arm visible, a whisky glass in his hand. Happy faraway days.

  14. March 22, 2020

    I have just visited the house and had no idea of this story. The house was breathtaking but this only adds to the rich tapestry of character, dedication and skill that has been the mark of the area for centuries.

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