The Reverend J L Petit

The Reverend John Louis Petit (1801-68) was a leading writer and speaker about ecclesiastical architecture, and an extraordinary watercolour artist.

In his day church architecture and restoration were intensely debated topics. Petit was the leading opponent of the neo-Gothic of the day, and a pioneer of preserving old buildings against destructive restoration well before that became accepted. 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. The entire hoard held by descendants emerged just in the last 30 years and can only now start to be appreciated. His pre-impressionist sketches stand in contrast to the Pre-Raphaelites of mid-Victorian Britain just as his architectural ideas were modernist in contrast to neo-Gothic. Petit stands at the end of the distinguished line of British watercolourists, with a unique ability to capture the effect of a scene, especially one including a church. In the 1850s and 1860s, after the death of Turner, Petit continued to push the boundary of 19th century modernist art towards what would be picked up later on the continent.

Family

Petit’s family were moderately wealthy landowners, active in professions, from Staffordshire. Descended from a French Hugenot family, his father the Reverend John Hayes Petit (1770-1822) was the permanent incumbent at Shareshill near Wolverhampton. After his death the family moved to Lichfield. Petit’s uncle, Louis Hayes Petit (1774-1849) was a London solicitor, MP for Ripon, and member of the Society of Antiquaries. Petit’s mother, Harriet, was daughter of John Astley a well regarded portrait painter.

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.

1840s, First Book and St Mary’s

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. A. W. 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 nearly 300 examples across the UK and the continent to demonstrate 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, Professor Freeman, writing in 1849 called it the best work on architecture by a living author. Yet it faced vitriolic criticism from those, grouped into the recently started Ecclesiological Society, who wanted to lay down restrictive rules and were initially in favour of favour of destructive restoration. This battle continued for the rest of Petit’s life. 

A specific dispute from the early 1840s concerned the proposed restoration of St Mary’s, the main church of Stafford, by a young Gilbert Scott. Petit opposed several aspects of the plan for the exterior as destroying the character of the church. Although Petit did not persuade the client or architect to alter the plan, in 1852 Scott acknowledged that the dispute had been seminal, leading to far greater conservatism in restoration. Writing in 1877 in his Recollections, he recalled that dispute as foreshadowing the arguments of the SPAB and praised Petit’s scholarship, artistic talent and “noble character”. 

One consequence of these early disputes is that from the mid 1840s Petit focused more on his writing and speaking, and used his art mainly to support those activities either for exhibition at his lectures, or collecting examples for subsequent illustration in writings. Before 1845 his art is more consistent, when all his pictures were well finished. After this his most advanced and uniquely original work is found, but only a small proportion were developed from rough sketches and have survived to the present day. 

1850s, Leading the Opposition

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, Romanesque church architecture in three regions of France at the boundary of the Gothic north and Latin south. Aimed at a more limited audience of church architects and commentators it persuaded the Gothic party to broaden their repetoire to include what became known as Angevin.

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 papers continuing his themes of inspiring originality through breadth of example – for example to RIBA 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 in 1858-9; and a lengthy tour to Egypt and Syria in 1864-5.

Some Architecture and Poetry

Petit was neither full time academic, nor architect in an age when it was still possible to be a leading commentator as neither. 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. It still stands on a wooded hillside overlooking the estuary near Barmouth in North Wales and has recently been upgraded to Grade 1. 

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.

Legacy: Pre-Impressionist and Pioneer of Preservation

In the 21st Century Petit’s most accessible legacy is his art. He differs from commercial artists of the 19th Century in that his watercolours were not developed for the market of the day 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’. He stands as a unique British outpost of modernist pre-impressionist art at a time when most artists were absorbed by detailed studio works with historical themes.

In addition, petit is also important for 19th century history of architecture and the Gothic Revival. As the pioneer of the movement towards Preservation, his own views are closer to where we have ended up today than the extreme position adopted by Ruskin later. Also, while there were other opponents of Gothic for secular architecture, Petit deserves to be remembered for his heroic defence of other styles and for advocating a modern and original approach to church architecture that would eventually be accepted only after his death.   (January 2020)

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.

Close Menu