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Simon Pettet’s Tiles At Dennis Severs’ House

April 26, 2023
by the gentle author

The exhibition MAKING HISTORY: THE CERAMIC WORK OF SIMON PETTER and SIMON’S STORY, the new tour devised by The Gentle Author, open next week at Dennis Severs’ House.


Click here to book for both the exhibition and tour at Dennis Severs’ House



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

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Richard Cleaver permalink
    April 26, 2023

    Wonderful. I have noticed these tiles on previous visits but until now their origin and history was unknown to me, and certainly Simon’s skill is seconded only by his obvious keen sense of humour. I shall look at them with greater poignancy on my next visit.

  2. April 26, 2023

    These are exquisitely detailed tiles but I confess that I haven’t actually climbed into the fireplace to look at them closely. I would expect that I might be asked to leave! However, I am very glad that you did GA to bring us these images and stories. I’m quite intrigued by the Porsche incident!

    Simon’s order of service got me quite choked up. There is a quote in the film Bladerunner : ” The light that burns twice as bright, burns for half as long.” This popped into my head as I looked at these images.

  3. Bernie permalink
    April 26, 2023

    Most of the tiles have crazed glaze. Does anyone know whether that is intentional or a sign of some “error” in the making? Just curious.

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