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Making History At Dennis Severs’ House

May 7, 2023
by Rupert Thomas

Click here to book for my Spitalfields walk next Saturday and beyond


Rupert Thomas former editor of The World of Interiors and now curator of MAKING HISTORY: THE CERAMIC WORK OF SIMON PETTET introduces the exhibition which runs until 4th June at Dennis Severs’ House

Tulipière by Simon Pettet


18 Folgate Street is an amazing survival – and a unique fantasy. It was built in 1724 but the powerful atmosphere of its interior was created by Dennis Severs, a charismatic Californian who rescued it from almost certain destruction in 1979.

Dennis restored the house with characteristic theatricality, employing unlikely materials to finish the job as quickly as possible. So not everything here is what it seems. He also devised a family of Huguenot weavers – the Jervises – who had built the property and who continued to “live” alongside him in rooms lit by candles and heated by real fires.

Paying guests would hear, though never see, this family on the guided house tours he offered. Atmosphere mattered far more to Dennis than slavish accuracy and his tours were choreographed to leave visitors feeling palpably as if they had stepped back 250 years. Every possible effect was employed in the immersive drama, including accurate contents in the chamber pots. “You either see it or you don’t,” he told visitors before they were admitted.

When Simon Pettet walked through the door one night in 1983 he saw “it” immediately and was smitten. They had met at the gay nightclub Heaven: Simon was eighteen and starting a ceramics degree at Camberwell School of Art & Design, Dennis was in his thirties and tirelessly working on the home they would share for almost a decade. The encounter changed their lives forever. If the house is Dennis’ vision, the role Simon played in making that vision a reality cannot be underestimated.

Simon was born in 1965 and grew up in Orpington with his parents Ken and Marion, and his older brother Stewart. If school was a chore, he excelled at Camberwell and graduated with a First. But it was Dennis, the house and life in Spitalfields that allowed his work to take flight. Inspired by 18th-century blue-and-white tin-glaze pottery, or delftware, he began to make objects that would have been used in grand dwellings such as 18 Folgate Street when they were new. He was instinctively able to capture the spirit of authentic Delft pottery and with a flick of his brush conjure works that are rooted in the past but feel entirely of their own time. To give credence to Dennis’ fictional family, he inscribed some pieces with the name Jervis.

Remarkably, all the works in the exhibition were produced in less than ten years. Simon was diagnosed HIV positive in 1984, at a point when the condition’s outcome was inevitable. He was nineteen. His was one of the earliest cases in the UK (the first was identified in December 1981). Yet despite the prejudice and injustice then surrounding Aids, Simon remained optimistically steadfast and never stopped working or trying out new forms and glazes. It is as if his status acted as an incentive. To the end, he wanted to be known as a Potter as opposed to an Artist, a choice that reflects his modesty but in no way diminishes the brilliant originality of what he achieved. He died on 26th December 1993, less than a month before his twenty-ninth birthday. His service took place at Christ Church Spitalfields, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s imposing masterpiece.

Generously, the Jervis family has gone on holiday for the duration of the exhibition so their rooms can be given over to the things Simon made. This is his first retrospective and it includes objects kindly loaned by private individuals alongside pieces he made specifically for Dennis that remain in the house. But the Jervises are still here in spirit, as is Dennis – you might even hear his voice, as the intermittent audio of horses’ hooves and a tolling bell was made by him and used on his own tours. We have interwoven it with some of Simon’s favourite songs from the period. And of course Simon is here too: you’ll see the room in which he lived, the kitchen where he and Dennis made toast on the range, and his exceptional work. The ceramics he created remain as witty, elegant and joyously individual as the day they emerged from the kiln.

Shaving bowl in the Smoking Room

Mr Jervis’s barber’s bowl, made by Simon in 1990. In the eighteenth century, customers would hold these bowls, with indent to their neck, as the barber mixed water and soap into a lather. Soap balls were not produced in England until after 1685, when Huguenot refugee soap-boilers arrived from Paris. Bowls were often decorated with representations of relevant equipment – in this case scissors, comb, sponge etc – but lancets could also appear, as barbers also operated as surgeons.

Delft shoes

Delft shoes were popular in France, Holland and Germany, as well as England. A large number have initials and are dated, suggesting they were made for betrothals and marriages, or at least as objects of affection. Simon’s (dated 1988) are taken from models of the late seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries. Charles Perrault’s version of the classic Cinderella story was published in 1697 and introduced the elements of the pumpkin, fairy godmother and the “glass” slipper.

Profile pots, obelisks and a tulipière

Profile pots, obelisks and a tulipière snake their way up the black-painted stairs from the ground floor at Dennis Severs House. The flat-fronted profile pots have shaped supports at the back which enable them to stand upright. Placed on top of a bookcase or cupboard as part of a garniture, they would take up far less space than if they were fully three-dimensional.

The Master Bedroom at Dennis Severs House with Delft tiled fireplace and tulipière by Simon Pettet

“As an artist my canvas is your imagination,” wrote Dennis Severs in The Tale of a House in Spitalfields, “and left on your own – unimpressed and fearless of social embarrassment – would you ever play along with me tonight?” The Master Bedroom was particularly beguiling, with “soft celestial colours” and “the grandest upholstered baroque four-poster bed imaginable” (though he was happy to admit it was made using pallets and glue-soaked lavatory rolls).

The Delft fireplace in the Master Bedroom at 18 Folgate Street was Simon Pettet’s subtle masterpiece, entitled ‘The Gentrification Piece’, each tile was a sly portrait of a Spitalfields resident of the day in 1985.

Placed inside at the top right-hand corner of the fireplace, entirely hidden from view by the wooden surround on the front, Simon’s self portrait is the most-discreetly placed tile so that only someone who climbed into the fireplace would ever find it.

Simon’s tile of mating rabbits – the one with raised ears looking distinctly surprised – is taken from a late seventeenth-century Dutch design.

The mugs Simon made at the end of his life were thrown on the wheel and made of porcelain, making them different to most of his earlier works, which are hand-built in clay. Based on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century industrial wares, they have either straight or splayed bases and crisp, moulded handles. They are seen here on the window ledge in the basement kitchen at Dennis Severs’ House.

Simon Pettet’s panels of the seasons were installed posthumously in Clerkenwell in 1995 where they can viewed to this day at The Holy Tavern in Britton Street.

Portrait of Patrick Handscombe taken at Dennis Severs’ House May 2022

“Simon regarded his work as work, he never liked to be called an artist. He said ‘I’m not an artist, I’m a master craftsman,’ but his craft was everything to him. He wanted to be a great potter.’ recalls Patrick Handscombe, Simon Pettet’s intimate friend and final partner who cared for Simon in his last years.

Complementing the exhibition is a piece of immersive theatre devised by The Gentle Author, based on interviews and using the words of Patrick Handscombe who lived in Dennis Severs’ House at that time.

SIMON’S STORY tells the intimate story of Simon and his relationship with Dennis Severs, offering an opportunity to understand more of the private and public lives of those who created Dennis Severs’ House in the eighties and nineties.

Photographs copyright © Lucinda Douglas Menzies

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

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Lizebeth permalink
    May 7, 2023

    How sad that this wonderfully talented artist didn’t get the chance to live his full life and potential.

  2. Janet Cheffings permalink
    May 7, 2023

    Very exited to join this tour, train strikes permitting!

  3. May 7, 2023

    Now that I am finally freed from the shackles of Covid, I really must book my place. For anyone who has not yet visited Dennis Sever’s house, you should make it a priority. I would have revisited at some point anyway but I am very interested to find out more about Simon’s work and see some pieces that I have not yet seen. It’s always good to have a reason to go back.

  4. Wendy permalink
    May 7, 2023

    Booked immediately I read about the new tour. We’re looking forward to it immensely.

  5. Eva Radford permalink
    May 8, 2023

    How wonderful! If I were anywhere near London, I’d make the trip to this incredible house. Lucky, you who can go.

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