Petit: Architectural Progressive and Pioneer of Preservation

Petit was one of the foremost writers and speakers on Church Architecture in the mid-19th Century, and one of very few standing against the re-introduction of 14th Century Gothic for new building or restoration, as prescribed by his opponents. He stood for originality in new work, and preservation of the old, believing there was great beauty in all previous styles. He devoted his art and speaking to identifying the forms and proportions of beauty in ecclesiastical architecture. He was both a modernist, in an historical age, for new buildings, and at the same time the pioneer of preservation of the old

His first contribution, Remarks on Church Architecture, was published in 1841 and considered by some to be the most important book on architecture by a living author, while coming in for extreme criticism from the advocates of Gothic. This was followed by two other important books, many minor publications and articles and numerous speeches and papers until after his death in 1868. 

Eventually, after his death, his view that Gothic ‘would gradually fade away through not meeting the needs of the present’ became accepted. At the time it was often a lonely battle to oppose steadfastly the tide of fashion and intrigues of the neo-gothic party.

A list of his works and speeches so far noted is below. 

The Context

Petit was far from alone in his interest in church architecture, and medieval church architecture. A religious revival had begun early in the 19th century to reverse the wasteful neglect of churches and religious observance in the late 18th century. Linking religious revival with the literary and romantic interest in Gothic produced the fashion for restoring old churches and building new ones in the Gothic of the 14th Century. This had taken over all building commissions by the 1830s and was further boosted by the appearance of Auguste Pugin’s Contrasts in 1835, “a manifesto for 14th century gothic”. Gothic became effectively dogma in the 1840s and 1850s following the founding of the Ecclesiological Society in 1839 and its journal the Ecclesiologist in 1841, which castigated architects or writers who deviated from its approved style.

Remarks on Church Architecture

Petit’s first writing, Remarks on Church Architecture appeared in 1841, but would have been conceived in the mid 1830s, possibly in response to Pugin’s Contrasts, and was completed in 1840. A tour de force artistically as well as in its scope, Petit’s aim was to present over 300 examples from the UK and Europe to demonstrate the beauty of all different styles of architecture, and argue against one correct style.

At this stage Petit was not opposed to neo-Gothic, and indeed admired Pugin’s buildings, but argued that imitation was a poor form of architecture, and that there was so much more tradition to draw upon, which should be used to create original designs. 

A chapter was devoted to opposing modern restorations and the need to preserve medieval heritage, with practically the full range of arguments that have been used since. It also includes lines of verse, both Petit’s and another’s to convey the value of emotional attachments in a community’s architectural heritage.

His book ignited the debate. The Gentleman’s magazine called it the best book on the subject to appear for years, while the Ecclesiologist devoted a large part of the March issue of its first volume, in 1842, to an extensive and vitriolic criticism – claiming that beauty should play no role in judging holy architecture, that any variation from the one correct style should not be considered, and certainly not using foreign ‘pagan’ models. Counter criticism, for example in the Christian Remembrancer, and further defence of their position in the Ecclesiologist continued for another year.

Even at the end of the decade, Professor Freeman, writing the History of Architecture in 1849 referred to Petit as the ‘first of all architectural critics’ and Remarks as one of two most important works ever written. The other was a Historical Essay on Architecture by Benjamin Hope, long deceased.

Petit had been catapulted to the centre of the debates on church architecture and would remain so until after his death and the publication of a couple of posthumous works.

The Pioneer of Preservation

The 1840s was the key decade in the arguments around preservation. The different positions were defined by Professor Edward Freeman in 1843 as Conservative, Destructive and Eclectic. The Ecclesiologists, under their founder John Neale, for a while embraced the Destructive position. However his dogmatism and rudeness gradually provoked a backlash and after he was deposed from leadership in 1845 the Ecclesiologists came round to a more eclectic position.

In 1841 Petit had fought a losing battle at St Mary’s Stafford against the architect, the young Gilbert Scott, and the Ecclesiologists. However, by 1852, Scott would claim to be a conservative, and by the 1870s would write that this battle with Petit was seminal in bringing forward principles that could then be adopted for conserving heritage.

Evolution to Anti-Gothic

From 1846-8 he published four smaller volumes of his speeches. The most important is Remarks on Architectural Character, a large folio size book of a speech and illustrations presented to the Lichfield Architectural Society in 1845. In only 15 pages of text, but with 45 full size illustrations Petit discusses the irreplaceable character of different styles of church architecture in the UK to make the same points that it must not be defaced, and cannot be imitated.

From being reasonably agnostic about Gothic, just advocating that it should not be merely copied and certainly not made into a rule, by 1850 Petit believed that the neo-Gothic dogma was plain wrong. By contrast he argued all historical styles and motifs should be absorbed, and especially the Romanesque should be studied for the way that different motifs harmonised together.

To prove this Petit investigated deeply the ‘round arch’ styles of the three provinces of France at the boundary of the Gothic north and latin south, during study tours to France from 1850-52. The result was Architectural Studies in France (1854). Philip Delamotte, the pioneer of photography in the UK, contributed some 40 of the 130 illustrations; most were based on Petit’s watercolours. It has been described as highly influential: Scott and others followed in Petit’s footsteps. and Angevin and round arch motifs became an accepted part of the repetoire of the high Victorian age.

Leading the Opposition

By the mid-1850s the battle seemed to be divided into two camps: the gothic party advocating Gothic as the basis for a national style for all architecture, acknowledged Gilbert Scott as their leader, now in his prime. While facing strong opposition for secular architecture, for church architecture with the support of the Ecclesiologists under Beresford Hope Petit’s opposition was isolated.

Petit continued to speak and write articles for the next decade until his death in 1868. RIBA, which was gradually moving into the prominent position it enjoys today, sponsored the annual Architectural Exhibition where he was one of its most frequent and popular lecturers, in part because of the art which he exhibited at these events. Petit also gave three papers to RIBA, lectured at the Architectural Museum, and at many regional architectural societies.

Petit was admired by followers and opponents alike for his grasp of technical detail. Many of his illustrations were of churches or designs to demonstrate that his ideas were practical. Churches outside of the mainstream often embody the ideas he was proposing (for example St James at Gerrards Cross). Radical designs for domed churches were apparently well received by an Indian Missionary Society. But the only church known to have been built by him is the Caerdeon Chapel, St Philip’s near Barmouth, Wales.

Later Perceptions

Yet by the 1870s, and the founding of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings all had come to agree the importance of preservation, the impossibility of recreating the power of ancient gothic by copying, and the need to be original even when working in gothic. Eventually even this gave way to the greater originality of the 20th century and Petit can be said to have achieved full vindication, although without ever getting the credit his ideas deserved.

In the 20th Century those advocating gothic of various types, especially Ruskin and Gilbert Scott have been accorded much greater acclaim, by for example Pevsner and other 20th century critics, but this view is rather one-sided. Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture of 1849, and Stones of Venice in 1853, are certainly dramatic and contentious reads, while Gilbert Scott, the pre-eminent architect of the Victorian era used his position to write his own version of architectural history in his Recollections towards the end of his life.

However, those who advocated Gothic had most effect. Most new buildings of the Victorian age are neo-gothic, and most medieval churches were restored using that style. Yet there were many who opposed the strictures of this movement, and among these Petit stands out as being one of the most attractive and thoughtful writers of his generation.

Close Menu