Petit's Art

This part of the website, together with the exhibition, describes and illustrates his painting styles. The grouping follows that published in the British Art Journal 2017, with the addition of one earlier group for 1820s work not previously identified separately. Other sections discuss dating and market issues, and what work is held in public collections. A new page gives more information about his close circle and attribution issues arising.  

The Emergence of Petit’s work in the 1980s and 1990s

The big difference between Petit and other artists of the day is that Petit was not professional, ie selling work to live. He never sold his watercolours, drawings or illustrations. That gave him huge freedom; he was imaginative and experimental, so one finds a great variety of style during his lifetime. Also he was obsessively active – and his lesser works were not pruned as with commercial artists, so there are a lot in total.  Most of his works, about 10,000, descended in one branch of the family until the 1980s. A few hundred of his later sketches went to other family members and some of these found their way onto the market, but none of his earlier or better works so far as one can tell, because they had all been pasted into albums.

The main hoard was accidentally abandoned, following the death of Petit’s great niece in 1957. By this time many, up to one third, had suffered damage and they had been mixed up with those by his sisters. New owners dumped what was left into auctions during the 1980s and the 1990s, in large lots of 100 to 300 each, mostly at Sotheby’s Billingshurst, and at least 6 lots went through Bearne’s of Torquay in 1992. This is obviously a disastrous way to introduce a practically unknown artist. 

Overview of his Work

There is a big difference between his earlier art, until the mid-1840s, and the later years, from the late 1840s to 1868, with a transition in between. The early works, until after the publication of his first book, Remarks on Church Architecture, differ from the later by being smaller, more finished, with sky, colour and foreground. During this time Petit appears to be learning from both de Wint (for landscape) and Prout (for architecture) as his pictures gradually move from the more conventional to his own special style for capturing buildings and nature.

In the latter period from the mid 1840s the majority are architectural sketches, sometimes unfinished, on larger thicker paper drawn to support his writing and speaking. Those which were completed for exhibiting at speeches can be very attractive, often because of the simple addition of colour on top of the basic red wash. Yet in every year, in addition, there are works that Petit appears to have done for pleasure, which are remarkably original and modern even by our standards (see last group in the exhibition). Petit was a proto-impressionist at a time when British art moved in the opposite direction under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites.

In all cases Petit is accurate topgraphically. He does not try to create picturesque compositions artificially, or draw just the most romantic views. He found incredible beauty in churches and landscapes and wanted to capture accurately their effect, directly and truthfully. In addition to the works of art, the corpus of work together is an incredible record of medieval ecclesiastical buildings in the mid 19th century from across Europe.

Highlights

The most consistently beautiful artistically we think are from the early period: the Continental pictures of c1839, the monochrome series from the 1830s, and the English ruins of the early to mid 1840s, all of which can be easily appreciated.

However, in the later period some of the works prepared for exhibition, and some of the remarkable scenes of the church in its setting, of Lichfield Cathedral, and of landscapes in Scotland or France, are extraordinary and uniquely distinctive. As with other original art they need some familiarisation, but once understood, their haunting character and atmosphere are as powerful as anything of that time, and enables Petit to be considered alongside great British artists of the 19th Century – as indeed he was by those who knew him in his day.

Also in total some 500 pictures, from all periods, were copied as illustrations for his various writings, and these are also therefore especially interesting. The two biggest groups are those for Remarks taken in the late 1830s and those for his second major book Architectural Studies in France, done in 1851-52. There are smaller groups that appear in Remarks on Architectural Character, his articles (1844-1870), and the Anastatic Drawing Society annual albums from 1855 to 1868.

At the time of his death his obituary writer praised pictures of St Pauls. Venice. Many famous sites across Europe were among the 365 exhibited in 1869, although Petit is known for his focus on humble parish churches as well as major cathedrals. So far we have found few of those framed in the 19th Century, so there is plenty to uncover, including even a few oil paintings (two were auctioned in the early 2000s) and maybe initial assessments will be revised.

Table of Styles                                               

Date

Description

Estimated original Volume

Website Exhib Section Nos

1820s

Landscapes and scenes from Essex and midlands. Often small or very small, some purple. Condition mixed.

500

1,

Early 30s

Monochrome in grey, brown (Low Countries), or black. Proutian buildings, shipping from Harwich. A little larger, up to 23×15

500

2,

c1837-42

UK churches, finished pictures with sky, up to 25×18

1000

3,

c1837-42

Landscapes, UK, experimental and varied in size and design

500

4,

Late 1830s

The Remarks tours; colourful, varied size. Churches and a few views.

500

5,

1840s

UK Churches and ruins, and a few landscapes and views. No sky but finished. Larger to 32×24

1000

6,

Late 40s – 1868

Architectural sketches, large, to 38×28 by 60s, very limited red/sepia palette, usually unfinished, attribution issues

5000+/-

7,

Late 40s to 1868

Architectural sketches finished for exhibition

1500

8,

Late 40s to 1868

Finished watercolours and special groups

500

9,

Public Collections

There are four public museums where Petit’s work can be seen:

  1. The best group is 23 drawings held by the Shire Gallery, Stafford. These are however only of Staffordshire buildings and from 1835-45, with just a couple of exceptions including one very late unfinished landscape of Lichfield, possibly one of the last he did.
  2. The National Library of Wales has a series of 60 sketches of the Chapel at Caerdeon as it was being built in 1861 and 1862. For Petit lovers these are interesting more for the series of doodles on the back. Otherwise they are a good example of architectural sketches done for a record not for exhibition or art. The NLW collection does however include about 10 local landscapes, castles etc from around 1849 (the I album). There was another small sketchbook attributed to Petit but not by him. This has now been corrected.
  3. The Samuel Johnson Museum, Lichfield, has 5 drawings by Petit. These are on display (all other public collections are held in storage). They also have a family album of a further 50 drawings by different family members. This is a unique resource for examining family attribution issues.
  4. The V&A has a sketchbook of illustrations prepared for Remarks, and two watercolours.

Dating

Most of his pictures were not dated until 1854, and then usually will carry a date on the back. Most done after the late 1840s carry album letters as typographed labels on the back which can help dating. A few in each stylistic period are dated or can be dated by the fact that they were exactly copied for a publication, or because the church was in the process of alteration when painted.

Where To Find Petits

Petits come up occasionally in regional UK auctions, and some can be found on ebay or at reputable dealers.

Those with the main dealers are reliable and either very good or good, see:

The ebay selection is very mixed, sometimes poor. Mostly the examples originate from regional auctions. Somerset and Wood have done good research, attribute properly and have a few left which are descended via Petit’s wife, although in need of conservation (see: https://somersetandwood.com/search?type=product&q=petit&submit=Search).

Sulis Art have had a lot, see: (https://www.sulisfineart.com/search/show/100?q=Reverend+John+Louis+Petit). However they failed to distinguish Petits from Emma Petit (see separate page), and many of Emma’s are in their group. This can be a problem with all the other ebay dealers. In general the material on ebay is weaker stuff that has not been able to find a home, but occasionally exceptions do pop up.

Regional auctions are similarly risky, some pictures are not attributed, in other cases the circle are misrepresented as Petit. The highest selling Petits in auction were those of the Middle East, fifteen years ago. However those were, we believe, by Emma Petit.

The Circle of Petit and Attribution Issues

 Pictures were almost never signed. Very rarely initials are on the mounting paper. Generally there are titles on mounting paper (early), or on the back (later) in Petit’s own handwriting; or that of his circle. While we have come across quite a few early paintings by the family, these are relatively few and obvious. Attribution issues mostly arise with the architectural sketches and later landscapes from abroad, and some detailed information is available here.

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