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Simon Pettet’s Tiles At Dennis Severs’ House

June 26, 2021
by the gentle author

I am delighted to announcement Dennis Severs’ House reopens on 29th July. Click here to book


Anyone who has ever visited Dennis Severs’ House 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 I learnt 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.

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, but I used a kitchen scourer to remove the grime and 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 St

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)

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

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Herry Lswford permalink
    June 26, 2021

    How fascinating – and what beautiful tiles!

  2. David Gooding permalink
    June 26, 2021

    An historical gem and honey pot for anyone with an interest in how lives were lived in those days.
    What an amazing and creative way to unfurl the past.

  3. Janet Mantle permalink
    June 26, 2021

    What an interesting story. Such talent and humour in those tiles. How tragic that we lost so many young men to AIDS. This is a beautiful legacy.

  4. Peter Hart permalink
    June 26, 2021

    Wonderful thank you so much.

  5. June 26, 2021

    What a happy ‘memory prompt’ to have this morning, of my (mostly great) days in E1 and our visits to the magical Sever House.

    And those tiles are quite beautiful!

    If there is someone in 2021 making tiles, with the same care and beauty of the late Simon Pettet, please get in touch.

    I and NetworkModelmakers are in Holland now (after completing the Queen’s Westminster Abbey models, not many people know that…), and based now in an ancient canal house.

    I think we need some tiles of this cool caliber here.

  6. Sigrid Werner permalink
    June 26, 2021

    Morgen is een andre Dag ( in High German: Morgen ist ein anderer Tag) can also be translated “Tomorrow is a different day”- the sentence holds both meanings in one.

  7. June 26, 2021

    A rare talent and a sad loss. RIP Simon.

  8. Bill Cahill permalink
    June 27, 2021

    Thank you, thank you for this genius posting. Yer quite right in making us aware of this very interesting young man, whose art and life was so sadly cut off. How nice to see his fine visage. A very good-looking boy. A jewel in the history of the craftsmanship of that time. Thank you.

    I think I might have posted here about how I first read about Dennis Severs’ House in the American version of House and Garden, which, in the 80’s, was far superior to Architectural Digest, which was simply an over-blown, over-lit Hollywood extravaganza. House and Garden reached into the very interesting world of what mattered. Like Dennis Severs’ House.

    Gentle Author, you seem destined to record the history of this beguiling and yes, strange place. Strange in the sense of the examination of the untoward and desirable, the non-quotidian. The non-sublunary. The “that” upon which your audience naturally battens.

    We want to know about all those who had/have been instrumental in being a part of Mr. Severs’ revelation of another part of reality. The reality we care to know.

    All of them. Mr. Pettet, and who knows who else.

    You do, boy. We are waiting. Eagerly!

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