John Louis Petit
The Reverend John Louis Petit (1801-68) was an extraordinary topographical watercolourist, and one of the leading writers and speakers about ecclesiastical architecture, a hotly debated subject in the 19th century. He opposed the dogmas of the Gothic Revival and advocated careful preservation of all medieval buildings without alterative restoration, a generation in advance of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). Petit also advocated originality in new work, building on all earlier styles from the UK and abroad. His position was supported by many but incurred severe criticism from the supporters of Gothic - the Ecclesiologists, and leading architects such as Gilbert Scott, who ultimately were more influential in writing the history of the period. Petit’s unique artistic style, capturing the emotional impact of churches and cathedrals individually and in their settings, contributed to his popularity as a speaker, where he exhibited up to 100 watercolours to illustrate his talks.
However, he has largely been forgotten since he died. He never sold his art; it was closely held by family until the 1980s when it was dumped in regional auctions in large lots mixed with poorer work of his sisters. As an architectural commentator the mid-19th Century came to be known as the age of the Gothic revival of Pugin, Gilbert Scott and Ruskin, and the strivings of the opposition party, especially Petit, have been downplayed, although they were highly influential in reducing the worst impact of the Gothicists and in preparing the ground for what came later.
Artistic Context and Legacy
While Petit can be located in the British topographical tradition, no-one combined his various qualities in quite the same way. On the one hand, in both the 18th and 19th Centuries artists were often commissioned to provide drawings for antiquarian purposes, for collectors complimenting their own work, or for books of engravings. The Buck brothers and Edward Dayes, among others, each produced large quantities. It was not uncommon for antiquarians to leave several thousand drawings in albums. In the 18th century these tended to be dry ‘factual’ recordings of the subjects. In the 19th century, starting with Turner and Girtin most famously, professional artists took a more romantic view of topographical drawing, and artistic license to adjust what they saw to make a more commercial picture: Cotman and Prout are good examples. Petit unites these two traditions. Completing approximately 12-15,000 watercolours across Europe, he recorded subjects faithfully, but at the same time conveys the emotional impact of the architecture or scene in his unique way.
Petit’s artistic style divides into two main periods though with considerable variety and experimentation in both. From the mid 1820s, when the earliest work can be dated, until the early 1840s he produced the most carefully completed watercolours. This period includes more landscapes, shipping, and unusual subjects, for example mines in Wolverhampton. The works tend to be smaller. Later, Petit produced mostly architectural sketches to support his speaking and writing, and few were well finished. The underlying tone of this later work is reddish, distinctive for exhibiting in quantity at his lectures. The best of these uniquely convey the effect of architecture: the dignity of the rural church or the awe-inspiring cathedral in its setting. More and more he eschewed precise or delicate work, conveying great accuracy, emotion and effect impressionistically and dramatically.
Most of Petit’s early work is set within Britain, and especially in or around Staffordshire, his home county, or Essex and Kent. Petit worked as a curate from 1828-1834 at Bradfield Essex before quitting full time work to focus on his art and architectural interests. In the 1830s he also made three or four trips to Europe in preparation for his first book. In later years, especially the 1850s and 1860s most of Petit’s work was undertaken abroad. He travelled often, especially in France where he sketched most years, Germany, Italy, and Ireland, but also completing tours to Corfu, Greece and Constantinople (1857), Spain and North Africa (1858) and Egypt and Syria (1865). His sister Emma, and often other family members, travelled and painted with him. Their pictures were mixed with his in the disposal of his work and can be a source of confusion, since they rarely signed works. This undermines Petit’s reputation because they are much weaker artistically, and hang around on ebay.
After his death the Architectural Exhibition Society gave over part of its annual show to an exhibition of 339 of his watercolours, and then they disappeared. Petit left one thousand of his drawings to different family members, now quite widely dispersed, and the rest, the bulk, passed down one family line until 1957 when they were abandoned to new owners after a death. The collection, already depleted by damage, was then disposed of through Abbott and Holder and Sotheby’s Billingshurst in the 1980s and 1990s, indiscriminately. Only since 2015 has research and conservation on Petit’s extraordinary art legacy been undertaken. So far remnants of two-thirds of his albums and folios have been identified. Up to one third, mostly later works, including many from his more distant travels, may have been lost.
The Staffordshire Museums and Art Gallery at Shire Hall now have 25 of his works. A collection of 60 watercolours are in the National Library of Wales mainly covering the building of the Chapel at Caerdeon in 1861/2, the only church which Rev Petit designed. The V&A has a book of the illustrations used in his first book, and two additional watercolours.
Architectural Writing and Speaking
Petit’s first book, Remarks on Church Architecture, appeared in 1841. A tour de force in two volumes, with over 300 illustrations from watercolours by Petit himself, it sought to gather multiple examples to demonstrate the extraordinary range of beauty in all historical architectural styles, from the continent as well as in Britain. The point being to counter the dogma of one ‘correct’ style set out in Pugin’s Contrasts, which had appeared a few years earlier. It was widely praised in many quarters. However, it faced vitriolic criticism from those following Pugin, grouped around the Cambridge Camden Society, and their journal, the Ecclesiologist, which was just getting going. This battle continued for the rest of Petit’s life.
Petit published over 25 articles, delivered at least as many speeches, authored 5 volumes of individual speeches and one other major book: Architectural Studies in France (1854, reprinted 1870). He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, admitted ad eundem to Oxford, was a founder member of the Archaeological Institute, where he published most frequently, and the Institute of British Architects, as well as holding several regional society positions such as Secretary of the Lichfield Architectural Society.
The themes and objectives of his publishing and speaking were consistent: countering restoration which sought to alter medieval church buildings; calling for originality in new building; and advocating drawing on all available historical styles.
On the first of these he, and the Antiquarians, Archaeologists and Architects who supported this position were eventually successful, although only after much damage was done. An early battle, in 1841, with a young Gilbert Scott, concerning St Mary’s, the main church in Stafford, was lost, and many other restorations added neo-gothic features to old churches. However gradually the tide turned. The extreme form of the Cambridge Camden Society ended in 1846 and by the mid-sixties even Scott was claiming he only altered when absolutely necessary.
The second theme, originality, led to interesting debates as to what was copy-gothic and what was original. The Gothicists certainly produced better and better work to demonstrate originality, such as polychrome brickwork, and vibrant interiors; although to Petit and others this was still not good enough. Petit demonstrated what he meant on only two occasions, see below.
The third theme, using foreign models, quickly became accepted. Pugin himself had ventured to Normandy with his father and helped on his publications, all other architects eventually travelled at least to France, and Ruskin added his unique appreciation of Italian Gothic. Petit of course went further, advocating to RIBA in 1858 that even Byzantine architecture had much to offer, and was accused of advocating wherever he had happened to most recently visit, indiscriminately.
While there were many advocates on both sides - the Gothic Party and those Against as Scott put it, in the mid 1850s Petit was one of, perhaps the most important voice of the other side. Gradually he had a big impact on all the points which he argued, but as he himself admitted, his big regret was that this came only after many beautiful buildings had been damaged by thoughtless restoration.
The Chapel at Caerdeon
Petit designed two buildings: his own summer house at Upper Longdon, outside Lichfield, in 1855; and the Chapel at Caerdeon for his brother-in-law, Reverend Jelf, in 1861/2. He also contributed to some alterations in St Paul’s as one of its few defenders during the neo-gothic craze. The Chapel at Caerdeon, renamed St Philip’s, still stands and has recently been upgraded to grade 1. His summer house was destroyed after his sisters sold it in the 1890s. Both demonstrated Petit’s unique originality, both were exhibited at the Architectural Exhibition Society annual shows, both were praised and criticized in equal measure. Now at St Philip’s we can see an extraordinary simple, beautiful and solid building perfectly harmonizing with its environment, everything a small village church should be. It was criticized by the Ecclesiologists for not having the required gothic components and resembling a Pyrenees dairy.
Petit was the eldest of 10 children of Reverend John Hayes and Harriet Petit; descended from a well established and moderately wealthy Hugenot family. Although Petit married he never had children. His two brothers also died childless as did four of his seven sisters. His father had been the incumbent at Shareshill parish north of Wolverhampton, and they lived in Lichfield where Petit was brought up and where he would live himself for most of his life.
Petit was educated at Eton and Cambridge, where he went on to take holy orders after graduating in 1826. He then worked as assistant curate at St Michael’s Lichfield until 1828 after which he was curate at the twin parish of Bradfield and Mistley in Essex until resigning in 1834.
His wife painted still life and birds but was not interested in architecture. His fourth sister, Emma, accompanied him most frequently from about 1845, and occasionally contributed drawings for his articles, which he always acknowledges. She also appears to have been the one cataloguing and organizing his albums and folios. Other sisters: Elizabeth (Haig), and Maria (Jelf) painted less frequently with them, and also Amelia Reid his sister-in-law, and Sarah Salt, his niece. In total some 10 to 20% of works sold though Sotheby’s Billingshurst are of these family members and of these over half are by Emma. Emma, Elizabeth and Susannah lived with Petit and looked after the pictures until their death in the 1890s whence they went to a son of Maria Jelf.
Petit was a close friend of and worked closely with Philip Delamotte, who became Professor of Art at Kings College, London. Delamotte was one of the leading proponents of photography as it emerged in the UK, and recognized as one of the leading teachers of watercolour art and photography. Delamotte travelled with Petit on several occasions, contributing drawings to Architectural Studies in France, and some illustrations to articles. In Delamotte’s book, The Art of Drawing from Nature (1870), he shows examples from many of the great professionals of the age, and Petit.
The Revd JL Petit and the Beauty of Churches, British Art Journal, vol 18: 2, 2017
The Rev JL Petit, Standing Up to the Gothicists; Ecclesiology Today; vol 55/6, 2018
The Rev Petit Society website at www.revpetit.com
Research and references to Petit prior to 2015 are cursory and misleading: Sir Nicholas Pevsner, 19th Century Architectural Writers, refers only to Petit’s first work. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2005 edition.
Primary Sources The Transactions of The Archaeological Institute 1844-72. The Builder, especially 1855-6. The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1840s. The British Newspaper Archive. Petit’s own writings, for list see www.revpetit.com. Letters in the Hartshorne Archive, Northampton; and the Freeman Archive, John Rylands Library, Manchester. William Salt Library, Stafford. Lichfield Archives.
See also Sir George Gilbert Scott, Recollections. Prof E A Freeman, History of Architecture. Prof PH Delamotte, The Art of Sketching from Nature. Augustus Hare, Recollections from Spring 1861 and August 1862.