Out and Proud in the House of Treasures

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Simon Pettet studied ceramics at Camberwell Art College but that’s not where he caught Dennis Severs’ eye. Instead it was a match made in Heaven, the iconic LGBTQ Charing Cross nightclub, that led Simon to the door of 18 Folgate Street Spitalfields to live like very uncommon people in the home of the obsessive collector, Californian Dennis Severs, writes Ed Gray. 

Simon’s Story is the hitherto unexplored backstory to the magical Georgian house that Dennis recreated as a ‘historical imagination’ in 1979 after buying it for £18,000. Written by one of London’s finest chroniclers, The Gentle Author, and commissioned by the Spitalfields Trust, this new play shines a light on the importance of their relationship to the story of the house.  

We were an audience of 8 that entered Severs’ time capsule that evening, limited in number due to space within the house. Descending the creaking staircase through a candlelit corridor to the lower ground floor we were offered a welcoming drink in the cosily cramped kitchen. This was a very welcome gesture as we decompressed from the shock of leaving the 21st century and entered the 18th century. The presence of the fictional Huguenot inhabitants of the house, the Jervis family, feels tangibly real. The motto of the house is Aut Visum Aut Non! “You either see it or you don’t.”

Seemingly incongruously, The Smiths song There Is A Light That Never Goes Out was playing in the background as actor Joel Saxon entered and we were transported once again, this time to Spitalfields in the 1980s, to witness a tale of love, sex, lust for life, HIV, tragedy, loss and the power of art. 

Joel played Paddy, a deep sea diver down from Aberdeen and real-life friend and lover of both Dennis and Simon. Like Paddy, Simon reinvented himself in London with the help of Dennis and the house. No longer the inexperienced boy from Orpington, Simon lived life to the full, creating wonderful ceramics inspired by the blue and white Delftware tiles and pottery so beloved of Georgian society that Dennis had collected for the house. In keeping with the house’s playful creativity, Simon’s ceramics are joyous reworkings of old Georgian motifs, beautifully displayed in the exhibition that accompanies the play.

This sensitive production owes much to the pen of The Gentle Author and Joel Saxon’s poignant and well-paced delivery. The reality of absent lives was made even more profound by one member of the audience revealing that he was a good friend of Dennis and Simon. Doug was watching a play about his life in the very rooms where he’d come to be entertained by them both as a young man. This was a moment of theatricality that Dennis himself would have enjoyed. After the performance, visibly moved, he said, ‘I’ve lived long enough to see my life become nostalgia.’ The Greek word nostalgia describes the suffering we feel when we return to our place of origin. 

Stepping into the Spitalfields dusk amidst the hipsters and the revellers to catch the Overground back to South London I mused upon the layers of history and artistry the audience had shared together and I thought about The Smiths song I’d heard earlier. There is a light and it never goes out – only because the flame is kept alive by those who want to see what’s hidden.

Dennis Severs’ House, 18 Folgate Street E1 6BX until June 4th. Wed – Sun 8pm.

Admission: £60.

Booking: https://dennissevershouse.co.uk/book/simons-story



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