by W.S.


The Three Sisters

If posterity has been unkind to John Louis Petit, the members of his family circle who painted with him have been dealt a particular blow. Petit’s art languished in obscurity for over a hundred years, but his thousands of rediscovered watercolours and drawings and his extensive writings on architecture form a solid basis for reconstructing the details of his life and work, albeit with large gaps still waiting to be filled.

His artistic sisters, on the other hand, have been dispensed a double disservice: not only did they sink into near total obscurity along with their brother, but, when the moment of rediscovery came in the late 20th century, they were summarily reconsigned to anonymity when almost everything they ever painted was auctioned off as their brother’s work. This did their brother’s reputation no good (it has not yet properly recovered from the confusion), and also ensured their continued erasure as individual, albeit minor, artistic personalities. Whenever their works appear on the market today, they are listed without attribution, or as “Circle of Petit” or, worse still, as by John Louis Petit himself.

A significant percentage of the many thousands of “Petits” haphazardly dispersed without proper scrutiny or study in the 1980s and 1990s are now believed to have been by his sisters or, more rarely, other members of the circle around Petit.

The notes that follow seek to review what scarce biographical information can currently be pieced together about three key members of the Petit Circle – Emma, Elizabeth and Susanna, the sisters who lived with Petit and regularly accompanied him on his travels and sketching expeditions. A much wider circle of family members travelled and painted with Petit at different times (further information can be found elsewhere on the Rev. J.L. Petit website), but Emma, Elizabeth and Susanna were the keepers of the vast bulk of Petit’s paintings after he died and, after their own deaths, it was largely their work that got mixed up with his. Their style has evident echoes of Petit’s own.


A family of the first respectability

The 19th century Petits of Staffordshire were both wealthy and numerous. These twin factors had a direct bearing on their artistic legacy. Their wealth meant that John Louis Petit and the other artistically-inclined family members never sold their work and could afford to pursue a life of leisure and travel (this contributed to their absence from the art market, and also accounted for the wide geographical scope of their subject matter). At the same time, the profusion of members of the Petit Circle has led to inevitable confusion over attribution.

John Louis Petit was the eldest of ten siblings, and after their father, John Hayes Petit, died in 1822, their mother, Harriet, with her large young family, moved to a house in Tamworth Street, Lichfield (formally owned by John Hayes’s brother, the barrister and MP for Ripon in the years 1827-32, Louis Hayes Petit). It was also the house which John Louis Petit would eventually make his permanent home. The bulk of Louis Hayes Petit’s estate passed to John Louis on the former’s death in 1849.

Harriet was the daughter of portrait painter and amateur architect John Astley (1724-1787), and is known to have painted herself.

The house – known as “Redcourt” – features prominently in the Petit story as it was the family home where the artistic Petits were based until the end of the 19th century. It was sold after the death of the last of the Lichfield-based Petit sisters, and eventually demolished in early 1930, its physical destruction conspiring to obliterate further the memory of its former residents. Today, the site is occupied by a busy car park.

A glimpse of the house in its heyday is afforded by a description – in best 19th century estate agent’s speak – published by a local auctioneer when the house was advertised by the Petit family for a three-year let in 1831. It was described as an “Eligible Residence, handsomely furnished… in perfect repair, suitable for a family of the first respectability”.[1] The obsequies for Redcourt – originally built for Lucy Porter, Dr Johnson’s step-daughter, in 1766 – were performed by auctioneers Winterton & Sons in November 1929 when they sold the property’s “valuable interior fixtures and fittings… previous to the Demolition of the House”.[2] The wrecking teams must have been busy over Christmas since by early in the New Year Wintertons were already selling 50,000 bricks and 4,000 red tiles, as well as quantities of slates, joists and scrap iron and lead, at the Redcourt site.[3]

Back in the 1820s, when the newly-widowed Harriet and her young family moved in, Redcourt must have been bustling with life. As the gap between the eldest and youngest of the sisters was 15 years, some of the Petit girls were young children while others were already poised to enter the county marriage stakes.

By the late 1820s, two had been married off. Another – Louisa – died after an undisclosed lifelong affliction at the age of thirty in 1842. A fourth, the youngest, married in 1849. John Louis Petit’s two brothers pursued legal and military careers, died at a comparatively early age and left no offspring. Three sisters remained in Lichfield as the core of the Circle around Petit.

Elizabeth and/or Susanna captured by their brother’s brush sketching in Loches (left) and Rome (right), 1854. Details of paintings by John Louis Petit (private collection).

Drawing and watercolour painting being among the standard pursuits of ladies of the genteel classes, the Petit sisters were no exception. But whereas the artistic efforts of the sisters who married and set up home elsewhere were by and large dispersed early on, the sisters who stayed on at Redcourt not only painted with Petit and under his direct influence and presumably artistic direction, but also continued painting long after his death.

In addition to Emma and Susanna, the three live-in sisters included Elizabeth Haig, who was married and widowed in quick succession in the 1840s. As they ended up as keepers of their brother’s huge artistic legacy, it is easy to see how, in a later generation, their own work eventually got accidentally jumbled up with his.

Emma Gentille Petit (1808-1893)



Just as the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral (traditionally known as the Three Sisters) are dominated by the taller central spire, so too the trio of Lichfield-based Petit sisters was dominated by Emma. She was the most versatile of the three and tackled as broad a range of landscape and architectural subjects as John Louis, and for this reason her work has been most easily confused with her brother’s. She derived her painting style in large measure from her brother’s manner and technique, and echoed and sometimes directly mimicked his preferred ways of composing architectural subjects, and particularly his building-in-a-landscape views. A large proportion of the Circle pictures that were misattributed to Petit when the family hoard was sold off in bulk lots were by Emma. Like her brother and sisters, she did not sign her work.

Emma was John Louis’s closest artistic collaborator among the Circle members. She contributed drawings to publications alongside her brother, and was his most loyal travelling companion on his innumerable architectural tours. She shared her brother’s antiquarian interests, and was involved in learned societies alongside him.

Emma is believed to have been the family member responsible for meticulously numbering and cataloguing her brother’s later pictures. And, following his death in 1868, she organized a posthumous exhibition of his paintings and made sure that his unpublished writings saw the light of day. She is also known to have collected drawings and watercolours by different family members – one such mixed album known originally to have been collated and owned by her has survived relatively intact and is held at the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Lichfield.[4]


Illustrations for The Archaeological Journal

Illustrations drawn by Emma accompanied John Louis Petit’s articles in a number of issues of The Archaeological Journal, the principal publication of the (Royal) Archaeological Institute[5] (notably, in 1846, 1866 and 1868).[6]

The drawings Emma occasionally contributed to her brother’s articles for the journal were exteriors and interiors of buildings and close-ups of architectural features, and they give a clue to the nature of the family division of labour: her job seems to have been to fill gaps in the visual records that her brother brought back from their joint sketching expeditions.

Emma Petit, Church at the foot of Lycobettia (Lycabettus), near Athens. Illustration in The Archaeological Journal, 1866.

When The Archaeological Journal published John Louis Petit’s “Remarks on Mediaeval Architecture in the East” in two parts during 1866, the article contained a large number of his own drawings and two by Emma. The journal wrote that in May of that year John Louis Petit had given a talk based on the article, accompanied by a display of “a large series of drawings executed by Miss Petit and himself in the course of a recent tour of Greece and Egypt”. The wording suggests that Emma may well have brought significantly more works to the event at the institute than her two published illustrations, and indeed a considerable number of the Middle Eastern subjects sold at auction as by J.L. Petit in the 1980s and 1990s are believed to have been Emma’s.

Emma Petit, Hexagonal conduit at the east end of Sherborne Minster, Devonshire. Illustration to an article by J.L. Petit published by the Archaeological Institute, 1853.

Perhaps Emma’s most substantial contribution to a single published article of her brother’s was a series of illustrations to his “Sherborne, Dorsetshire”, which appeared in a volume of West Country material relating to the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute held at Bristol in 1851.[7] Petit’s paper was not actually delivered at the Bristol proceedings, but had been read at Oxford the previous year. A note to the published article states: “The whole of the Illustrations, prepared from drawings by the Author and by Miss Petit, have been generously presented by Mr. Petit to this volume.” At least five of the illustrations were based on Emma’s drawings, and, in what was evidently a broad collaborative effort, another was attributed to “Miss Reid” (i.e. Amelia Reid, the sister of Petit’s wife, Louisa Reid).

One of Emma’s Sherborne drawings – alongside five of her brother’s – was reused in The Archaeological Journal more than a decade later to accompany an article on Sherborne Minster by another author.[8]

Learned societies

It is noteworthy that Emma’s interest in the Middle East did not wane with time: in the 1880s she subscribed to the Palestine Exploration Fund[9], a society devoted to the study of biblical Palestine and the Levant. Coincidentally, it was set up in London in June 1865, at exactly the time when John Louis Petit, Emma and one or more other members of the Petit Circle (the exact make-up of the group is currently unknown) were completing an extended sketching tour of the Middle East. The timing can be seen as an indication of the degree to which Petit brother and sister were closely attuned to the academic and antiquarian preoccupations of the time.

Even a decade after the trip, Emma was still reworking and recycling the visual impressions she had brought back from the Middle East. Her sketches from Palestine formed the basis of a triptych with a Jerusalem landscape that she donated to St Michael’s Church in Lichfield in the late 1870s. Painted in oil on zinc panels, the work must have been of considerable size as it was displayed in the reredos behind the altar. The composition, with wheat and grapes in the foreground, had a harvest festival theme, all set against the backdrop of Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives and the village of Siloam (now a neighbourhood of Jerusalem), painted from drawings made on the spot.[10]

In the early 1860s, Emma (“Miss Petit”) featured alongside John Louis Petit in the list of members of the Hakluyt Society, which published “rare and valuable Voyages, Travels, Naval Expeditions, and other geographical records” from before the 18th century.[11] These were distributed to subscribers for a one-guinea annual membership fee.

Under the auspices of the Royal Archaeological Institute, Emma continued to pursue her antiquarian and archaeological interests well into her later years. In 1886, just a year or two short of her 80th birthday, “Miss Petit” attended the start of an archaeological field trip in Derbyshire to retrieve the missing parts of the “Bradbourne Cross”. Fragments of the early mediaeval stone cross shaft were serving as the jambs of a stile in the village of Bradbourne. The expedition reunited them with the main part of the cross standing in the local churchyard.[12] The endeavour was organized by Albert Hartshorne, the institute’s secretary in the 1870s-1890s. Hartshorne himself was the son of John Louis Petit’s friend, the Rev. Charles Henry Hartshorne.

Anastatic drawings

Emma was a member of the Anastatic Drawing Society, which published annual volumes of prints made using a recently-pioneered method of facsimile reproduction. The drawings – which focused on buildings, monuments and objects of antiquarian, archaeological and architectural interest – were sent in by members, largely amateurs, and were published alongside detailed historical descriptions. In one edition, for instance, Emma contributed “Well in Ratisbon Cathedral” and “Crowland Bridge”.[13] It is revealing that whereas Emma (“Miss E.G. Petit”) is credited with the drawings, both accompanying descriptions were penned by her brother (“J.L.P.”). Emma may have followed in her brother’s artistic footsteps, but when it came to architectural and antiquarian pronouncements she deferred to the latter’s expertise. In the 1860 volume of the society’s prints, “Miss Petit” contributed “Stoke-Say Castle, Shropshire”.[14]

Anastatic prints were often made from images that first had to be traced, and in the 1850s Emma made what were described as tracings for a set of satirical anti-High Church sketches by Charles Winston.[15] Printed using the anastatic process, the drawings poked fun at a recently-formed Anglican women’s order, the Devonport Sisters of Mercy, whose members were to be sent to the Crimean War as nurses. A copy of the “extremely rare” edition was put up for sale by Sotheby’s in 1867. The satirical drawings were targeted at “the Puseyites and Miss Sellon[16] and the Mediaeval Movement generally”.[17] 

At a meeting of the Royal Archaeological Institute in 1881, Emma exhibited “tracings” from wall paintings discovered in a church in Northamptonshire. A report in The Archaeological Journal described the originals as “about one foot high, lately found during the ‘restoration’ (only to be destroyed), in Grendon Church”[18] – or, as a report in The Athenaeum put it in a pointed swipe at insensitive repairs to old buildings, “lately destroyed (of course) by the process of ‘restoration’.”[19]


The talented Miss Petit

It will be noted that in some of the published mentions of Emma listed above her name is stated somewhat loosely as “Miss Petit”. This raises legitimate questions of identity. After 1849, when Petit’s sister Maria Katherine became Mrs William Jelf, there were two main contenders for the “Miss Petit” title – Emma’s younger sister Susanna (1813-1897) and Emma herself, neither of whom ever married. A complicating factor is that another younger sister, Elizabeth (1810-1895), became Mrs David Haig in 1844, but was widowed within four years of her marriage and subsequently joined the two unmarried sisters in a joint ménage with their brother, continuing this domestic arrangement after the latter’s death in 1868.

The writer, raconteur and amateur artist Augustus Hare left an entertaining vignette of the Petits’ domestic set-up. Describing an 1862 visit to “Mr. Petit, the ecclesiologist”, Hare wrote: “He lived at Lichfield in a house built by Miss Porter, Dr. Johnson’s step-daughter. With him resided his three sisters and seven cats, who appeared at all meals as part of the family and rejoiced in the names of “Bug, Woodlouse, Nebuchadnezzar, Ezekiel, Bezor, Rabshakeh, and Eva – the mother of all the cats.”[20] It is ironic that, while meticulously naming the members of the household menagerie of cats, Hare omitted to mention the names of the sisters. Hare’s description is emblematic of their Houdini-like elusiveness – and an example of the difficulty of piecing together even the bare facts of their lives.

A further complication is that although the widowed sister Elizabeth was formally Mrs David Haig, it cannot be ruled out that she was regarded by others, at least on occasion, as one of the Misses Petit. In 1878, the sculptor Mary Grant recorded in her journal that she was working on a posthumous alto relief of the Rev. J.L. Petit to present to the “kind and clever sisters” (who without a doubt included Elizabeth), and that she had paid a visit to the “kind old Miss Petits near Lichfield”.[21]

The strongest evidence supporting the identification of “Miss Petit” with Emma is her membership of the Archaeological Institute, which is beyond dispute. She was in fact one of a very small number of its female members, appearing in the membership lists alongside her brother at least from the mid-1850s. Although she was most commonly listed in the institute’s publications as “Miss Petit”, in 1873 – either through accident or design – she appeared with her full initials (“Petit, Miss E.G.”), dispelling any lingering doubt about her identity.[22] The year “Miss Petit’s” membership disappeared from the institute’s records coincided with the year Emma died – 1893.

It is noteworthy that a connection to the Archaeological Institute is one of the threads that runs through many sightings of “Miss Petit” in different written records. As custodian of her brother’s legacy, she used her links with the institute to posthumously promote his work. For instance, in 1878 she lent a series of his sketches to illustrate a talk by Professor B. Lewis at the Archaeological Institute on the subject of the antiquities of southwestern France.[23] When in 1887 Albert Hartshorne decided to republish a paper in the Archaeological Journal that Petit had presented to the Society of Antiquaries more than 30 years previously, it was Emma who lent him her brother’s original notes. Acknowledging “the kindness of Miss Petit”, Hartshorne noted that the measurements Petit had taken made it possible to draw up a plan of the church of St Radegonde near Tours in France to accompany the article.[24]

It can be maintained with some confidence that the “Miss Petit” from Lichfield who loaned a miniature of Mary Queen of Scots by Bernard Lens to an Edinburgh exhibition in 1856 was Emma: the event was held at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute.[25] Although it must have been a family heirloom, Emma, typically, would have been the sister dealing with its loan for exhibition. The picture in question was undoubtedly the “valuable” miniature of Mary Queen of Scots that Augustus Hare saw at Lichfield in 1862 and speculated must have derived from the Petits’ connection with the Guises.[26] Emma was still lending out the miniature many decades later – for instance, to an 1890 Cheltenham Fine Art Society exhibition, where it took its place among “other quaint and valuable art curios” in a special display of miniatures.[27]

The elusive sisters. No confirmed portraits of Emma, Susanna or Elizabeth have been traced but the photograph, above, possibly shows Emma (front), Elizabeth (back), and their younger sister Maria Katherine Jelf (left) in 1877. The occasion was the wedding in Lichfield of Maria’s son, Louis William Jelf, to Helen Vincent. Louis William was later to inherit the family hoard of thousands of Petit drawings. (Photo: formerly Chetwynd family archive.)

There is no evidence that either Susanna or Elizabeth shared Emma’s antiquarian interests to the same extent, or that they were ever members of the Archaeological Institute or any other learned societies. Similarly, whereas Emma was an active, contributing member of the Anastatic Drawing Society, nothing suggests that either Susanna or Elizabeth were as well, although another member of the wider Circle, John Louis Petit’s sister-in-law, Amelia Reid, did play an active part in it.

Finally, it is intriguing to note what naming convention was adopted when all three sisters turned up at a public event alongside each other. A press report about a family wedding can serve as an example. When Mary Louisa Salt married Joseph Lavies at Chislehurst parish church in 1889, the wedding present from “Mrs. Haig” was a china muffineer, “Miss S. Petit” gave a painted frame and “Miss Petit” was the donor of a “painted chimney piece”.[28] The generic “Miss Petit” had evidently become so closely identified with Emma that on occasion initials were superfluous. 

The philosopher poet

Emma is known to have followed her brother down the path of versification. She was the author of an account in verse of a series of lectures on geology and astronomy given by the rector of St Michael’s Church, Lichfield. The poem, Playing at Science, was privately printed in three parts in the late 1870s. In 1914, Sotheran’s the booksellers described it in one of their catalogues as “Lichfield scientific poetry almost suggesting a reincarnation of Erasmus Darwin”.[29]

The combination of science and poetry, and indeed religion and science (the original lecturer was a churchman), presents a striking echo of John Louis Petit’s unfinished long poem, The Lesser and The Greater Light, which Emma herself had edited and published after his death almost a decade before. In it, Petit had pondered one of the great Victorian philosophical questions: how scientific understanding and reason could be reconciled with revealed religion and faith – an intellectual conundrum that had been thrown into sharp relief by the century’s advances in the study of cosmology, geology and discoveries about the origins and evolution of life.

It is probable that, her brother’s poem being unfinished on his death, Emma saw her own versified philosophical reflections as an opportunity to complete what he had left unsaid. Playing at Science is another example of how Emma walked in John Louis’s footsteps – both in her painting and in her wider intellectual and literary pursuits.

A Shropshire legend

Another of Emma’s forays into verse was a poem about St Milburg (or Milburga), the 7th-8th century abbess of Wenlock Priory in Corvedale, Shropshire. Fellow Archaeological Institute member Frances Stackhouse Acton collected previously unpublished details of the legend and Emma put them into 20 stanzas of verse, published in 1857.[30] An idea of Emma’s literary skills can be garnered from the following excerpt from the poem. Its final two stanzas – in which Wenlock Priory is referred to by its ancient name of Llan Meilien – run as follows:

St Milburg in Llan Meilien
Her sacred days did close;
And in the cell she loved so well,
Her relics do repose.
What tho’ the walls shall crumble,
And the sepulchre decay,
And Llan Meilien’s very name
Shall for ever pass away; –

What tho’ the Norman Conqueror
A prouder fane shall rear, –
Thro’ Corve’s sweet vale for ever shall
The saint’s blest name be dear.
She sleeps in Wenlock Priory,
Holy fragrance marks the spot;
Nor till each stone be overthrown,
Will St Milburg be forgot!

The passage quoted above is a modern transcription, for it was originally published with “mediaevalist” orthography (rather in the spirit of 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton and his Rowley series of poems). This involved such devices as doubling consonants, adding a silent “e” at the end of words, and changing the “i” to a “y” and the “e” to an “i” or “y”. Above all, it meant the liberal use of “ye” for the definite article. Here, for instance, is how lines 3-4 of the first stanza appeared on the printed page:

Ande yn ye celle schee luvd soe welle,
Hyr relics doe repose.

In this, Emma was echoing her brother, John Louis, whose immersion in the study of mediaeval architecture led him playfully to use mock archaic orthography and phrasing in his correspondence with friends and close acquaintances. In two letters from Italy to the Rev. Charles Hartshorne in 1854, for instance, Petit peppers his account of his travels with archaisms such as: “ye one trewe chyrche”, “holie cittie”, “there be in Rome ye grete and holie peynter Overbeck” and “ye ages of feyth”.

His sister’s forays into pseudo-mediaeval English are further proof that everywhere that Petit went, Emma was sure to go.

Susanna Petit (1813-1897)

Compared with Emma, Susanna and particularly Elizabeth flit only fitfully through surviving records.

Susanna Petit (?), “Spitz”, collodion print. (Formerly Chetwynd family archive.)

A distinctive attribute of Susanna is that she appears to have dabbled in photography, displaying a collodion print of a Spitz dog at a Photographic Society of London exhibition in 1861.[31] Although the catalogue only identifies the photographer as “Miss S. Petit”, three pieces of circumstantial evidence support Susanna’s authorship.

First, the Petit household pets did indeed include a Spitz dog. Its name was Puff and it was painted by John Louis in 1867. Second, the archive of the Chetwynd branch of the Petit family includes an unlabelled 19th century photograph of a Spitz in close-up (possibly Puff). Third, a close Petit family friend – artist and pioneer of photography Philip Henry Delamotte (1821-89) – was the maker of an undated etching showing the head of a Spitz which exactly replicates the composition of the photograph in the family archive. A copy of Delamotte’s etching is held at the British Museum.[32]

The direct connection between the British Museum etching and the Chetwynd archive photograph is clear (Delamotte must have based the former on the latter), and plainly the photograph itself is likely to be Susanna’s exhibited “Spitz”. Both photograph and print might conceivably be the work of Delamotte himself, but the theory of a collaboration between the two is a more plausible explanation than the idea that they held a Spitz photography competition.

Susanna shared some of the public-spirited and charity-minded outlook of the Petit sisters generally. In 1881 “Miss Susanna Petit” was one of 80 governors of Birmingham General Hospital selected by lot to form the election committee for the ensuing year.[33] There is no firm evidence that the “Mrs Eliza Haig” who was picked with her is Susanna’s sister, Elizabeth Haig, although it remains a possibility, but Elizabeth is on record as donating to the endowment fund for a new 50-bed suburban branch of the same hospital alongside Susanna a couple of years later, in 1883. Emma was simultaneously making two-guinea annual subscriptions to the same charitable cause.[34]

In March 1855, as the Crimean War raged, Susanna contributed two drawings for an exhibition in support of a fund to aid war widows and orphans. Held at 120, Pall Mall, the Patriotic Fund Exhibition of work by amateur artists included Susanna’s “Landscape, Mountains” and “Railway Viaduct”. We know for sure that on this occasion “Miss Petit” was Susanna not Emma because the latter was listed in the same exhibition catalogue with her full initials (she submitted an oil of St. Andrews).[35] Perhaps Susanna’s semi-anonymity derived from an acceptance that in the artistic pecking order she took second place to her more accomplished elder sister.

Susanna’s hand was behind a still life of a tufted duck hanging on a string and a black-and-white drawing or etching of Pau in the French Pyrenees to be found in an album that once belonged to Emma and is now held at the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Lichfield[36]. She also appears to have painted an 1846 ornithological watercolour study of an ortolan perched on a twig that passed through London dealers Abbott and Holder some years ago. Most importantly, a significant series of her watercolour sketches has survived from the 1854 Petit Circle tour of France, Italy, Austria and Germany. We know that on the final leg from Venice onwards (and perhaps for the whole trip) John Louis was accompanied by just two sisters – Elizabeth and Susanna[37], and therefore what is not attributable to Elizabeth must, by a process of elimination, be Susanna’s.

Susanna was the youngest of the three Lichfield-based sisters, and her death in 1897 (Elizabeth and Emma having predeceased her by two and four years, respectively) marked the end of an era. In its review of the outgoing year, the 1st January 1898 issue of the Staffordshire Advertiser listed Susanna among the “well-known persons connected with the county” – a roll call of the local great and good – that death had recently removed.[38]

Elizabeth Haig (1810-1895)

Of Elizabeth very little can be said with certainty because references to her in written records are few and far between. Born in 1810 as Petit’s fourth sister, she married in 1844 at the age of 33, but was widowed a few years afterwards. Her husband, 14 years her senior, was David Haig of Lochrin in Edinburgh, and Glenogil, Forfarshire. David Haig seems to have picked his wives according to their name – of his two preceding spouses, one was also Elizabeth (Price, d. 1833) and wife number two was Eliza (Hornsby, d. 1843). In 1848, just a few years after marrying Elizabeth Petit, David himself died at Southampton on his way from Madeira.[39] He was 52.

The Victorian readership of David Haig’s terse death notice would have picked up its unspoken subtext: that after seeking a change of air abroad to relieve an advanced pulmonary ailment – probably consumption – he had returned home to die, without making it beyond his port of arrival back in England. By the 1840s, Madeira’s reputedly salubrious climate had turned it into a mecca for health tourists from England, particularly those seeking remission from tuberculosis. The island was already known at this time as the “Paradise of Invalids”. [40]

David’s condition – if such speculation is correct – might also explain the presence of Elizabeth in the Pyrenees two years earlier. The Pyrenees and the town of Pau in particular were also a popular health tourism destination – a stay there was claimed to be beneficial for treating respiratory ailments.[41] Surviving works by the Petit Circle additionally indicate the presence of Susanna and possibly another member of the wider Petit group in the Pyrenees at different times in 1846 (although there is no evidence of Petit himself travelling there in this period). A possible explanation is that Elizabeth accompanied David for a lengthy stay, during which other family members from England came to visit.

After 1848 the now-widowed Mrs Haig rejoined the core of the Petit ménage gathered around John Louis Petit alongside sisters Emma and Susanna – one of the “Misses Petit” in all but name.

Whatever the truth about David Haig’s health, southwest France was a region Elizabeth would return to subsequently. A series of views of Biarritz and Cambo-les-Bains by her dated March and April 1869 – just a few months after John Louis’s death – show that she was drawn there for unknown personal or other reasons long afterwards.

The Emma Petit Album in the Samuel Johnson Birthplace   Museum contains two coastal/shipping watercolours by Elizabeth. Presumed to date from the 1840s, each is inscribed “EP” in Emma’s hand.[42] As far as attributions to Elizabeth are concerned, it is fortunate that there are enough clues in the large body of Circle pictures to identify Elizabeth’s hand with a reasonable degree of accuracy. But that is a subject for another chapter.

In their brother’s shadow

During her brother’s lifetime, Emma played an active role in supporting his attendances at, and contributions to, sessions of learned societies – and the Archaeological Institute, in particular. As already noted, she was one of the very few women to join the institute in its early years, and remained a member for the rest of her life. In her home city, she was referred to as a “distinguished Lichfield lady artist”.[43] For all her artistic, intellectual and literary accomplishments and enthusiasms, however, neither she nor her sisters were intellectual heavyweights in her brother’s mould. Although their extensive sketching tours with their brother had turned them into exceptionally seasoned travellers, following John Louis’s death in 1868 their natural habitat by and large reverted to being the provincial salon, the exhibition of amateur artists, the charitable committee, the church fête and harvest festival, the school board of governors and the annual meeting of the Lichfield branch of the Primrose League. A certain number of their post-1868 watercolours has come to light, but in nothing like the quantities that survive from their travels with their brother. They left no journals, diaries or writings documenting their lives – at least none have been traced.

Susanna and Elizabeth hard at work at their easels, Ulm (southern Germany), 23rd August 1854. Detail of painting by John Louis Petit (private collection). Susanna is probably on the right – her view looking towards the town square with its tree and church spire, painted on the same day, has survived. 

Despite their custodianship of Petit’s pictures after his death, the sisters were not averse to giving them away as the social occasion demanded – on running out of present ideas for a society wedding, for instance. When the second daughter of Mr Hugh John Reveley was getting married at Bryn-coed-Ifor near Dolgelly in North Wales in 1879, the three Petit sisters collectively gave the bride and groom a framed sketch by Petit.[44] And there is a whiff of philistinism about the sisters’ decision to sell off their brother’s extensive library of books when he was barely in his grave. Originally inherited from Petit’s   uncle,  Louis Hayes Petit, and expanded by Petit himself, it included, in the words of the auctioneers, “an extraordinary collection of grammars, dictionaries, and specimens of every known language and dialect; splendid topographical and historical publications, voyages and travels… architectural and pictorial publications, belles lettres, &c.”[45] The two-week sale took place in the rooms of Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge off the Strand in London starting on 23rd April 1869. Petit had died the previous December. We do not know what volumes, if any, the sisters kept for themselves – but one would have thought that the topographical and travel books put up for sale would be just the sort of thing they would have wanted to keep for themselves.

It must inevitably be concluded that the sisters never really escaped their artistically gifted and scholarly brother’s slipstream. Emma’s involvement in learned societies was certainly unusual at a time when these institutions were almost entirely male preserves. Her continuing membership of the Archaeological Institute until the end of her life was undoubtedly evidence of an enduring interest in antiquarian and architectural matters, but it may also have derived partly from inertia and habit: the keeping up of personal friendships and acquaintanceships made via her late brother will undoubtedly have played a part, as well as a desire to promote and perpetuate John Louis’s artistic and intellectual legacy via an institution that had warmly embraced him in his lifetime.[46]

On artistic merit alone, Emma, Susanna and Elizabeth do not especially stand out among the many hundreds of amateur lady artists of the 19th century. But the trio is important for two reasons. Firstly, their work got mixed up with their brother’s, and no attempt at a rehabilitation of John Louis Petit as a major artist can be complete without a close examination of the work that was confused with his. Inevitably, the question of how Petit is different from members of his Circle raises the question of how the sisters differed from one another. Secondly, the Circle was an inherent part of how Petit the artist operated. On his seemingly endless tours and visits to faraway cities, provincial towns, ancient sites and village churches all over the British Isles, Europe and beyond, he seems to have needed his retinue of female acolytes [47] to structure his indefatigable, near-obsessive mission to observe and record buildings, details of architecture, cityscapes, views and landscapes. The creative dynamic between Petit and the Circle members was too one-sided to be called a true collaboration – but a significant mutual dependence of some kind plainly existed. The Circle provided the immediate milieu within which Petit the artist flourished and created his remarkable artistic legacy.


[1]↑↑ The Staffordshire Advertiser, 23rd July 1831, p. 1. The ad, placed by Mr Harris, Auctioneer, Boar Street, Lichfield, described the property in detail: “The House contains on first floor, handsome Entrance Hall, spacious Dining Room, Breakfast Room, cold Bath, shower Bath, and Water-closet, Housekeeper’s Room, complete Store Room, Butler’s Pantry, convenient Kitchen, back Kitchen, Brewhouse, Laundry, two Store Rooms adjoining, most excellent Cellaring, and Wine Vault, Larders, Fruit Room &c., in ground floor. Second Story: handsome Stair-case, handsome Drawing Room, and smaller ditto adjoining, two Bed Rooms, and Dressing Room. Upper Story: three Bed Rooms and Dressing Rooms adjoining, two Servants’ Rooms, Washing Closet, &c.. Back Stair-case, &c. Shrubbery, Flower Garden planted with choice fruit trees, Hot-house, drying Ground, and Orchard, Garden-house with bed-room over. Kitchen Garden well planted. Coach-house, Gig-house, three-stalled Stable, and loft above, and other offices. The whole in excellent repair.”

[2]↑↑ Tamworth Herald, 2nd November 1929, p. 1. The sale, set for 7th November, included a “fine” Georgian oak staircase, “Adam and marble mantelpieces”, old oak panelling, a “handsome” Georgian stone porch and antique doors.

[3]↑↑ The Lichfield Mercury, 24th January 1930, p. 1. The sale was scheduled for 14th February.

[4]↑↑ Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, cat. no. 2001.974.

[5]↑↑ The Archaeological Institute became “Royal” in 1866.

[6]↑↑ The Archaeological Journal, vol. III, 1846, p. 49 (in “Ecclesiastical Antiquities of the Isle of Man”); vol. XXIII, 1866, facing p. 1, and facing p. 254 (in “Remarks on Mediaeval Architecture in the East, Parts I & 2”); vol. XXV, 1868, facing p. 184 (in “Howden Church”).

[7]↑↑ Memoirs Illustrative of the History and Antiquities of Bristol and the Western Counties of Great Britain; With Some Other Communications, Made to the Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Held at Bristol, July 29 to August 5, 1851. London: George Bell, 1853, pp. 185-236. Illustrations based on Emma’s drawings feature on pp. 217, 221, 225, 227, 229. Amelia Reid’s drawing is on p. 207.

[8]↑↑ Rev. R. Willis, “Sherborne Minster”, in: The Archaeological Journal, vol. XXII, 1865, facing p. 182. A note at the end of the article (“List of Illustrations”) lists Emma’s illustration among six woodcuts “engraved for the memoir on Sherborne, by the Rev. J. L. Petit, first published in the Proceedings of the Archaeological Institute, at· Bristol, 1853”.

[9]↑↑ Palestine Exploration Fund, Quarterly Statement (for 1886 and 1887), London. “List of Donations and Subscriptions from December 13th, 1886, to March 17th, 1887, inclusive” (appended at end of volume), p. 5. Emma features in the list as “Miss E.G. Petit”. The Fund’s declared focus was the archaeology, topography and ethnography of historical Palestine, Jordan, southern Syria, Lebanon, the Sinai Peninsula and Cyprus.

[10]↑↑ The Staffordshire Advertiser, 28th October 1876, p. 7. In an item on the annual harvest thanksgiving in the parish of St Michael, Lichfield, the newspaper wrote: “We noticed that an important artistic addition has recently been made to the church by three paintings (forming one whole) in the reredos. They are executed in oil on zinc. In the foreground are wheat and grapes, typical of the bread and wine in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The background represents a view of Jerusalem and its neighbourhood. In the north panel is the city itself, in the centre the Mount of Olives, and in the south the village of Siloam. The illustration is painted from drawings made on the spot, and taken from the place called the King’s Garden. The painting is the gift and the work of Miss Petit. The effect of this ornamentation is particularly satisfactory, the work being very successful whether regarded as an example of fruit or landscape painting.”

[11]↑↑ “List of Members of the Hakluyt Society”, in: The Hakluyt Society Report for 1863, pp. 4,7.

[12]↑↑ Rev. G.F. Browne, “Bradbourne Cross, Derbyshire”, in: Archaeological Journal, vol. XLV. London: 1888, pp. 7-11.

[13]↑↑ Anastatic Drawing Society: Collection of Prints, 1861. Plates XVIII and XXXIII.

[14]↑↑ Anastatic Drawing Society, Collection of Prints, 1860. Plate LXI.

[15]↑↑ Charles Winston (1814-1864) was a prominent historian of stained glass. A friend of J.L. Petit, he was a fellow founder member of the Archaeological Institute and shared Petit’s advocacy of non-intrusive restoration methods. See Jim Cheshire, “Charles Winston and the Development of Conservative Restoration” in: Journal of William Morris Studies, vol. 20, no. 2 (Summer 2013), pp. 83-102.

[16]↑↑ Priscilla Lydia Sellon (1821-1876). Having gathered a religious sisterhood around her in the course of educational and charity work in the slums of Devonport, Sellon founded the Anglican order known as the Devonport Sisters of Mercy, later the Society of the Most Holy Trinity. Fourteen of the 38 nurses Florence Nightingale took with her to Scutari in the Crimean War were sisters associated with Sellon. She encountered hostility from sections of the Church of England, who, suspicious of crypto-papistry, saw Sellon’s sisters as uncomfortably similar to Catholic nuns, but she was supported by Edward Pusey, one of the leaders of the high church Oxford Movement.

[17]↑↑ Catalogue of the Extensive and Valuable Library of the Late Sir Charles Rugge Price, Bart. London: Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, 1867, p.141, lot 2504. (Auction starting 13th February 1867, and six following days.) The catalogue entry reads: “Winston (C.) PEN AND INK SKETCHES in Contempt of the Puseyites and Miss Sellon, and the Mediaeval Movement generally, when there was talk of sending “Sisters” to act as Nurses in the Crimea, 18 humorous sketches on a roll, by the anastatic process from tracings by Miss Petit privately printed and extremely rare (see Mr. Winston’s autograph note attached).”

[18]↑↑ “Proceedings at Meetings of the Royal Archaeological Institute, November 3 1881”, in: Archaeological Journal, vol. XXXIX. London: 1882, p. 90. According to an account of the antiquities and works of art exhibited at the meeting, the original wall paintings traced by “Miss Petit” appeared to date from the period of Henry VI and to show the lives of the saints.

[19]↑↑ The Athenaeum, July-December 1881 (12th November), p. 634.

[20]↑↑ Augustus John Cuthbert Hare, Story of My Life, vol. IILondon: George Allen, 1896, p. 330.

[21]↑↑ Journal of Mary Grant. Courtesy of Richard Blake.

[22]↑↑ “List of Members”, Archaeological Journal, vol. XXX. London: 1873, unnumbered pages at end of volume. Emma, exceptionally, is listed as “Miss E. G. Petit” instead of the usual “Miss Petit”. The 1873 list also reveals the degree to which female members like Emma were a rarity. Among the 600 or so Lords, Esquires, Reverends and Right Honourables, there are fewer than 20 women. Within this group, there is a roughly 50:50 division between “Miss” and “Mrs” (and there is one “Lady”). Whether married or not, however, two-thirds are listed semi-anonymously without first names, initials or husband’s first name, adding to the relative “invisibility” of the female members.

[23]↑↑ The Athenaeum, July-December 1878 (20th July), p. 85. The sketches were described as having been “lent by Miss Petit”.

[24]↑↑ The Archaeological Journal, vol. XLIV. London: Office of the Archaeological Institute, 1887, p. 157. The article was edited by Albert Hartshorne, who explains that the manuscript and accompanying drawings had been given by Petit to his father, the late Rev. Charles Henry Hartshorne.

[25]↑↑ Catalogue of Antiquities, Works of Art and Historical Scottish Relics Exhibited in the Museum of the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland During Their Annual Meeting Held in Edinburgh, July 1856. Edinburgh: Thomas Constable & Co, 1859, pp. 208-9.

[26]↑↑ Augustus John Cuthbert Hare, Story of My Life, vol. IILondon: George Allen, 1896, p. 331.

[27]↑↑ The Cheltenham Looker-On, 8th March 1890, p. 193.

[28]↑↑ Staffordshire Chronicle, Saturday 5th January 1889, p. 8.

[29]↑↑ Sotheran’s Price Current of Literature, 1914: “Petit (Emma Gentille), Playing at Science [in Verse]: Recollections of a Course of Lectures on Geology, Astronomy, etc., given by the Rector of St. Michael’s, Lichfield, 3 parts 8vo sewn 3s 6d privately printed, 1876-9.”

[30]↑↑ Rev. Robert William Eyton, Antiquities of Shropshire. London: John Russell Smith, 1858, pp. 6-7. Eyton writes that he is “indebted in this matter to the kindness of two Contributors, – to one (Mrs. Stackhouse Acton), for collecting the particulars of the Legend; to another (Miss Petit), for combining the local tradition with other more generally asserted facts, and in an appropriate form.” Later in the century, a commentator questioned the degree to which details in the poem were based on local legend or were the author’s invention: Shropshire Folk-LoreA Sheaf of Gleanings from the Collections of Georgina. F. Jackson, ed. Charlotte Sophia Burne. London: Trübner & Co, 1883-1886, p. 419. In Chapter XXX, “Traces of Well-Worship”, we read that the rhymed version of the Stoke legend given in Eyton’s Antiquities of Shropshire “is so highly decorated a story altogether that one cannot say whether the authoress (Miss Petit) drew on her imagination for the idea, or whether it really represents a former local tradition”.

[31]↑↑ Photographic Society [of London] Exhibition of Photographs and Daguerreotypes, held at the Gallery of the Society of Painting in Water Colours, 5A Pall Mall East, cat. no. 507: “Spitz” by Miss S. Petit, collodion process.

[32]↑↑ British Museum cat. no. 1915,0218.82.

[33]↑↑ Birmingham Daily Mail, 17th February 1881, p. 1.

[34]↑↑ Birmingham Daily Mail, 10th December 1883, p. 1.

[35]↑↑ The Morning Post, 26th March 1855, p. 2. Somewhat comically, Petit himself was listed under the name “Miss J.L. Petit” – perhaps an understandable slip by the printers given that the artists who donated works for the exhibition were almost entirely female. Petit contributed two oils: “Llantony [Llanthony] Abbey, Monmouthshire” and “Wild Flowers in Yorkshire”.

[36]↑↑ Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum cat. nos. 2001.974.5 and 2001.974.73.

[37]↑↑ The arrival of the three from Venice on 16th August and their stay at the Oesterreichischer Hof hotel in Innsbruck was reported in Bote für Tirol und Vorarlberg (Tyrol and Vorarlberg Messenger) on 18th August 1854.

[38]↑↑ Staffordshire Advertiser, 1st January 1898, p. 6.

[39]↑↑ Bernard Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland. London: Harrison & Sons, 1894, p. 854; The Gentleman’s Magazine, July to December Inclusive (July). London: John Bowyer Nichols and Son, 1848, p.106.

[40]↑↑ The description is to be found in, for instance: Illustrated London News, 27th September 1845, p. 5. A poignant account of Madeira’s infirm and sickly tourists was published in a near-contemporary book by the writer and traveller Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley: “One feature [of Funchal, the capital] is, assuredly, melancholy. It is seldom that you can stir far from home without encountering some mournful object, often apparently on the brink of the grave, borne along at a pace in the hammock or the palanquin, with the hectic cheek and emaciated frame belonging to that fearful disease, consumption.” The author, who began her trip to Portugal and Madeira at Lisbon in late October 1851, pointed out that symptoms of the disease were “only too often allowed to attain to a frightful height before Madeira is resorted to” and that “the common mistake is to put off the visit to the island till it is too late to be of any real advantage”. (Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley, A Visit to Portugal and Madeira. London: Chapman & Hall, 1854, pp. 244-245.)

[41]↑↑ In 1842 the Scottish physician Sir Alexander Taylor brought Pau to the attention of health travellers with his book On the curative influence of the climate of Pau, and the mineral waters of the Pyrenees, on disease. With descriptive notices of the geology, botany, natural history, mountain sports, local antiquities, and topography of the Pyrenees. And their principal watering-places.

[42]↑↑ Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, cat. nos. 2001.974.69 and 2001.974.70

[43]↑↑ The Mercury, 6th December 1889. A “special sea-piece” painted by “a distinguished Lichfield lady artist (Miss Petit)” accompanied one of a series of tableaux vivants based on popular poems and ballads enacted during a charity evening in Lichfield in aid of the St. John’s Church organ fund.

[44]↑↑ The North Wales Chronicle, 26th April 1879, p. 5; The Aberystwyth Observer and Merionethshire News, 26th April 1879, p. 4. The Petit sisters were related to the Reveleys through the marriage of their nephew, Edward Petit Jelf, to Fanny Jane Reveley. The lucky recipient of the Petit sketch was Fanny’s sister.

[45]↑↑ The Morning Herald, 23rd April 1869, p. 1.

[46]↑↑ Emma was also generous in giving financial support to the causes her late brother had espoused. When in 1872 Petit’s friend, the Rev. John Thomas Clarke, was installed as the first vicar of Caerdeon Chapel in North Wales (the only building entirely designed by Petit and constructed under his supervision), Emma donated the substantial sum of £1,500 to provide the living. See: Philip Modiano, Clarke, Petit and St Mark’s. RPS Publications, 2022, pp. 25, 37.

[47]↑↑ Although Petit is presumed to have been accompanied on his early travels by his wife, Louisa Reid (they married in 1828), she virtually disappears from the scene after about 1850 having been confined to an institution. She was so invisible in the last couple of decades of Petit’s life that an obituary of Petit in The Register, and Magazine of Biography (vol. 1, 1869, pp. 220-222) went so far as to claim that he had been unmarried.

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