Ian Cooke together with his wife Eileen until her passing in 2007, was one of, if not the, greatest collector of English watercolours over the past 50 years. His collection spanned 300 years, over 1,000 artists and 10,000 artworks. It has been left in its entirety to the National Library of Wales. Ian was a leading authority on many artists in cluding David Cox. A strong admirer of Petit and supporter of The Petit Society since our foundation, he gave us access to use his Petit collection during his lifetime and after he died.
The Reverend Petit – A Collector’s Story
As a somewhat dedicated collector of early watercolours since 1971, I was intrigued by a large flow of 19th Century watercolour paintings mainly of country churches which appeared on the market in the 1990s. The artist was John Louis Petit, a non-practising clergyman who died in 1868.
At first glance they seemed too much alike and repetitive. I was to change my mind when in a London dealer’s gallery I spotted a variety of different subjects by Petit. A few years later an opportunity arose to see much more and to discover the true breadth of this artist’s work.
Petit died at the age of 67 in 1868. His work mainly stayed in the family and descended down the generations becoming unregarded. Finally it was abandoned in an outhouse where it was discovered by the new surpised owner of the house. Some had suffered from damp but a significant quantity survived and a local leading auctioneer was consulted and sold the albums and folios piecemeal without properly studying the content and the importance of the artist in his time. No differential was made between the finished paintings and the rapid studies of churches in mainly brown washes.
And so the immediate opportunity to assess and publicize the re-emergence of a fine artist who deserves recognition of his work for its beauty and quality, not just as the historic record that of course it is, was lost for a further period. Thankfully that is at last changing.
On a personal note I was lucky to have the opportunity to see a complete album of his watercolours from the early 1840s and a significant group of foilos wrapped in sailcloth straight from the auctions. The scope was really quite staggering with highly finished landscapes of great merit. Where Petit thought a location was of special merit or interest he would paint versions from different viewpoints. Bearing in mind the substantial books that he wrote and regular lecturing undertaken it is an extraordinary artistic achievement which is only now being fully and properly recorded.
I was able to purchase the album of English locations and a variety of other landscapes sufficient to reflect properly the artistic quality and preserve a representative group for the future. In discussing the art one has to start with the churches. These consist of the tiniest buildings as well as cathedrals. His style is free but the buildings are nonetheless well drawn and true. The compositions are often taken from an unusual angle and nonetheless and perhaps because of this they accurately the beauty of the structure – true art. Inevitably the line drawing illustrations in the books are dull by comparison.
Despite his writing and preoccupation with architecture he still found time to create pure landscape. To find his busy scenes of rivers with shipping, country snow scenes, the roof tops of Paris and studies of the family cat, dog and chickens was a revelation. They are fine truthful and decorative paintings and can match the achievement of many professional hands.
In the late 18th Century and the early 19th Century there were a good many parsons who were amateur watercolourists. Amateurs were both a source of patronage and a source of teaching income for the professional. The latter were however jealously determined to protect their position and amateurs were precluded from membership of the Societies. While some amateur work could be admired there was certainly some negativity towards ‘just amateurs’. Petit was not of course a true amateur, creating works for publication, and was, as we have seen, an extremely prolific artist, his was a unique situation and without a champion he rapidly disappeared from view after he died.
Few artists are truly “self-taught” and no doubt someone gave Petit lessons when he was a student or he may even have had a drawing master at home who enabled him to develop a natural talent. Later on there is an obvious link in colouring and handling to Peter DeWint. I am not alone in thinking this since one or two of Petit’s fine views of Lichfield Cathedral were fully attributed to the former by the Usher Gallery of Lincoln many years ago and offered to me as such.
When reviewing the watercolours it is easy to imagine hints of the early masters such as Cozens and Girtin in the drawings of the 1830s. Whatever the influences it does not take away from his originality. There is some change in handling over the years and differences in colouring, but his work is unmistakeable. His close female relatives also painted and a small proportion of the folios are by them and are close in style but generally seem much weaker. As with all art words cannot take the place of images and I strongly recommend you look at the examples which embellish the recently published “Petit’s Tours of Old Staffordshire”. In addition here are some further watercolour works worthy of note, in no particular order, just interesting and fine.
Ian C Cooke (1939-2020)
(manuscript, typed and shortened by the Rev Petit Soc)