I met Simon Pettet in September, 1986. I was in London visiting my eccentric uncle, Dennis Severs, famous for his restored Georgian house in Spitalfields. On my previous visit to the house in 1980, Dennis was living alone with Whitechapel the cat (aka Maj) and three kittens named Hackney, Stepney and Bethnal Green. Six years later, the kittens had grown up and moved out, Dominic the Footman was busy working about the house, and Simon Pettet was lodging on the top floor.
Simon was just returning to England after working at a summer camp, teaching art to a bunch of spoiled American teenagers. I arrived at 18 Folgate Street a few days before he came home, and Dennis couldn’t wait to tell me all about him. He was a 21-year-old artist who specialized in blue and white delft pottery. He had his studio nearby in the East End, and he would dash off to work on a series of “push-bikes” (never just a bike to Simon) that always gave him problems. Dennis described Simon as a true original. I didn’t need to be told that Simon was unique, because there weren’t many people who could live in that house with my uncle. Not only was there no central heating or electric lighting, but Simon’s bed was sitting under a leak in the roof. One night he knocked over the bucket balanced on the headboard and was drenched in icy water. Nights after a performance in the house, he would have to open his window and wait for the stench of rotting cabbage to clear before he could go to bed.
I knew what Dennis meant by “an original” as soon as Simon came through the door. He wore heavy work boots, and he stomped across the floorboards, all elbows and knees and voice and energy. He burned bright, and the words bubbled out of him. I loved him instantly. He told us how the American kids at the summer camp mocked him for calling erasers “rubbers,” and he was excited by the design on a can of American shaving cream. It was the only souvenir he brought back with him. He also had plaster gargoyles for the Dickens bedroom in his duffle bag, which my uncle asked him to pick up in New York. Dennis was so excited, we all rushed upstairs to put them around the Scrooge bed. Unfortunately, we didn’t secure them properly, and one of them fell on a visitor’s head the following night.
I could sit in my chair in the kitchen, with Maj on my knee, just watching Dennis and Simon all day. I would listen to them tell stories, usually about parties from the night before, as we made toast against the kitchen fire and drank coffee. One of Simon’s best stories was how he accidentally flipped a slice of gateau onto a white sofa at a fancy party, and he had to try to hide the frosting marks from the host. Simon also had a secret stash of objects he had broken in the house, hidden in his cupboard, waiting to be mended. Dennis knew all about them, but he pretended otherwise.
One of the best London nights I ever had was with Simon in the West End in 1988. I don’t even remember exactly what we did, probably just ate dinner and visited a few bars. It was his company and his conversation that entertained me. Even though I had known him for two years by then, I still had to explain to him that Dennis was my uncle and I was his niece, and how that was different from a cousin. Somehow he had never bothered to learn that stuff.
Another memorable outing we had together was in 1991, when Dennis took both of us to the National Theatre for my birthday. When we arrived at the theatre, I suddenly couldn’t remember if I had blown out the candle in my bedroom. I was horrified at the thought of burning down my uncle’s house. I started to fret, and I whispered my worries to Simon. We spent the evening giving each other panicked looks. I even went to the pay phones at intermission, figuring that if the answering machine picked up, the house was probably still intact. After the play ended, Simon and I both urged Dennis to take us home. He wanted to get coffee and dessert, so we continued to suffer together. Of course, everything was fine when we arrived back at the house, or I wouldn’t be writing this. Dennis would have murdered me! Simon couldn’t help telling Dennis all about it later, though.
I was lucky enough to visit Simon at his pottery studio when he was painting a pair of delft shoes for the drawing room. They were meant to belong to Mrs. Jervis, and they were left by the fireplace in “The First Position.” Simon made many pieces for 18 Folgate Street, including the fireplace tiles in the master bedroom, depicting the neighbors who lived in Spitalfields. He made many obelisks, and there was also a series of mugs based on late 18th century semi-industrial ware. I have one of these mugs, brought to me by Dennis on his final trip to San Francisco.
The last time I saw Simon was in 1992. He was still burning bright, but he was dying of AIDS. He passed away on December 26, 1993, at the age of 28. Dennis died six years and one day later. Their work and my memories remain.
Photograph ©M. Stacey Shaffer 1991
Photographs of Simon’s fireplace tiles can be seen here.