The Reverend J L Petit

A slightly fuller biography, with illustrations, is included as a chapter in the book Petit’s Tours of Old Staffordshire.

The Reverend John Louis Petit (1801-68) was a leading writer and speaker about ecclesiastical architecture, and a talented watercolour artist specializing in churches. In his day church architecture and restoration were intensely debated topics and he was one of the most popular speakers, albeit one who swam against the tide of neo-Gothic. Yet even his critics valued the numerous beautiful illustrations in watercolour that he brought back from his travels to all parts of the UK, Europe and the Middle East to complement his lectures and writing. Petit never sold his art in his lifetime, and it became available just in the last 30 years. Only now is Petit’s range of styles and unique ability to capture the dignity and power of churches starting to be appreciated.

Petit’s family were moderately wealthy landowners, clergymen and intellectuals from Lichfield, Staffordshire. Descended from a French Hugenot family, his father the Reverend John Hayes Petit (1770-1822) was the permanent incumbent at Shareshill, while his uncle, Louis Hayes Petit (1774-1849) was a London solicitor and member of the Society of Antiquaries. Petit was the eldest of 10 children, two brothers who died childless before him, and seven sisters, six of whom survived him, four who married, three with children. All the sisters painted, in particular Emma Gentile (1808-95) appears to have worked closely with him, contributing occasional drawings for illustrating his writings, and Maria Katherine (1818-1904) later Jelf, who also travelled with him on occasion and also painted in a similar albeit weaker style.

Petit married Louisa Reid (1806-88) in July 1828 but had no children. Louisa’s health deteriorated and she was looked after for a long while by her unmarried sister, Amelia Reid, who also painted with Petit occasionally. Another sister of his wife’s, Georgina, married a Gresley whose family were active antiquarians and watercolourists and closely associated with Petit through the Anastatic Drawing Society. (This society was founded by Reverend Gresley in 1855 and Petit contributed drawings to each of their annual collections).

After graduating from Cambridge in 1825, ordination in 1826 and working as a curate, firstly in Lichfield and then in Essex until 1834, he started to pursue his twin vocations of drawing and writing about church architecture. His first book, Remarks on Church Architecture, appeared in 1841. It appears to have been conceived to counter the then exclusive favouring of neo-Gothic for restoring churches and building new ones. Auguste Pugin had published Contrasts in 1835, claiming that 14th  century English Gothic was self-evidently the one correct style, although neo-Gothic had already established itself as a dominant fashion in church architecture since the late 1820s.

Petit’s Remarks collected numerous examples across the UK and the continent to demonstrate the beauty in all historical styles. It argued that all could be drawn on and used by architects to create new and original work; while restoration should only alter what exists when absolutely essential. Highly praised by those who were not convinced by the Gothicists, it faced vitriolic criticism from those, grouped into the recently started Ecclesiological Society, who wanted to lay down restrictive rules. This battle continued for the rest of Petit’s life.

A further controversy from the early 1840s concerned the proposed restoration of St Mary’s the main church of Stafford, by Gilbert Scott. Petit opposed as unnecessary the return to sloping roofs on the south transept. Although Petit did not persuade the client or architect to alter the plan, in 1852 Scott acknowledged that the dispute led to far greater conservatism in restoration, and in his Recollections, recalled Petit’s scholarship, artistic talent and “noble character”.

One consequence of these early disputes following his debut book is that from the mid 1840s Petit focused more on his writing and speaking, and used his art mainly to document examples to support those activities. His consistently best art is earlier than 1845, when all his pictures were well finished. After this, wonderful and uniquely original work can be found but only a small proportion were developed from rough sketches.

Antiquarians and ecclesiologists opposed to ‘one correct style’, formed the Archaeological Society in 1844, with their publication the Archaeological Journal, where Petit was one of the most frequent contributors. 17 of his articles were published in the AJ alone. He also delivered as many speeches, 5 of which were published as small books, and some others are recorded in the Transactions of annual meetings.  There was just one other major book: Architectural Studies in France. This examines in detail, and with numerous illustrations, round arch styles of church architecture in three regions of France. It was aimed at the more limited audience of church architects and commentators.

Petit was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, admitted ad eundem to Oxford, was an honorary member of the Archaeological Institute, and of the Institute of British Architects later RIBA, as well as holding regional society positions such as Secretary of the Lichfield Architectural Society and President of the Lichfield Working Men’s Association.

RIBA sponsored annual Architectural Exhibitions for a wider audience in the 1850s and 1860s where Petit was one of the most frequent lecturers and exhibitors, for example on “Utilitarianism in Architecture” in 1855, and “On the Picturesque in [Church] Architecture” in 1863. At the same time he continued to deliver more serious papers continuing his themes of inspiring originality through breadth of example – for example on Italian [church] architecture in 1855 and on Byzantine [religious] Architecture in 1858 based on a short trip to Greece and Constantinople in 1857. He continued to travel further and further afield covering Spain and the Mediterranean islands; and a lengthy tour to Egypt and Syria in 1864/65.

Petit was neither professional academic, nor architect in an age when it was still possible for such work to be led by amateurs. He contributed to some alterations in St Paul’s as one of its few defenders in the Neo-Gothic age; and in 1861/2 designed and supervised the construction of one small church – St Philip’s Caerdeon, for his brother in law, the Reverend William Jelf. True to himself, it is one of the few original designs of a church from that time, and is indeed one of a kind, although predictably the Ecclesiologist was scathing. Despite a tiny congregation, it still stands and is in use on a wooded hillside overlooking the estuary near Barmouth in North Wales.

Petit died, apparently from a chill caught while sketching, in December 1868. After his death the 1869 Architectural Exhibition gave over its annual meeting to an exhibition of 339 of his watercolours. The Archaeological Journal published a further three of his articles posthumously, and his sister published a lengthy poem of his “The Greater and The Lesser Light” which attempts to reconcile religious belief with understanding derived from the rapid scientific developments of the age.

Petit’s legacies are his stand for originality and against arbitrary rules for church architecture in his writing; and his art. Petit’s tolerance of different styles, welcoming of foreign influences, and call for original style would resonate far more strongly with us, whereas at the time neo-Gothic prevailed. Appreciation of Petit as an artist has been hindered by the fact that none was sold and they only appeared, and in unmanageably large quantities, in the 1990s, finished works and sketches mixed together with his sisters’ work. Yet for his finished work he must rank among the best topographical artists of his generation, combining accuracy with effect in ways that can reach modern audiences.

Petit differs from commercial artists in that his watercolours are not contrived or artificially picturesque. His unique gift was to communicate the majesty, power and solemnity of ancient churches of all sizes and styles. He is also capable of similar strength in presenting nature, to him ‘the works of God’. His pictures demonstrate exactly what he believed, that remarkable harmony and beauty has been achieved by our best ancient buildings, and no one style should be raised above all others.

Further Reading:

  1. Obituary, The Builder, 1869, by Albert Hartshorne, son of Petit’s friend, Reverend Charles Hartshorne, later editor of the Archaeological Journal.
  2. The Reverend Petit and the Beauty of Churches. British Art Journal Vol 18 no 2, November 2017
  3. The Reverend Petit – Standing Up to the Neo-Gothicists. Ecclesiology Today, vol 55-6, July 2018
  4. Webster and Elliott “A Church as it Should Be” History of the Cambridge Camden Society
  5. Reverend J L Petit: Remarks on Church Architecture (1841); Remarks on Architectural Character (1846); Architectural Studies in France (1854); Articles in Archaeological Journal and Transactions of RIBA Council.
  6. George Gilbert Scott, Recollections, edited by G Stamp (2005)

Other Sources

Church of England Database of Clergy, Geneological Records, British Newspaper Archive, Minutes of the Archaeological Institute and of the Society of Antiquaries.

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