Circle of Petit

Petit and His Circle

We start with those facts that are known about Petit’s circle, and continue with comments that we believe are correct, but which must be subject to further research.

The Facts

The Circle comprises immediate family and others.

The family members who painted are: Petit’s sisters, especially Emma, Maria Katherine (later Jelf) and Elizabeth (later Haig) who are the most frequently found members of his circle. Harriet (Salt), Sarah Salt, her daughter and Mary (Chetwynd) also painted with Petit but seemingly less. There is only one known drawing by the sixth sister Susannah.

Petit’s wife, Louisa was an accomplished artist but mainly of birds and flowers. However her sister, Petit’s sister in law, Amelia Reid painted similarly to Petit and with him on several occasions.

Several works occasionally appear among Petits’ that so far defy definite attribution. These could be by more distant relatives, such as the Gresleys – related by marriage to another sister of his wife, or by friends, such as Philip Delamotte, who travelled on painting trips with Petit on at least two occasions, and Charles Hartshorne.

So, we can be certain that:

  • 5 of his 6 sisters, Reid and the Gresleys painted similar subjects
  • Family or friends usually accompanied Petit on travels abroad, at least from 1854 onwards, and on at least some occasions within the UK. Emma most regularly, but also Maria, Mary, Sarah Salt and Amelia for sure on some occasions.
  • A few of Emma’s works (and four of Reid’s) were used as the basis for illustrations, first noted in 1846. Petit always gave credits when due.
  • Emma Petit, Reid and the Gresleys contributed similar drawings alongside Petit to the Anastatic Drawing Society’s annual collections
  • His sisters continued to paint after his death, especially Elizabeth’s have been noticed
  • They all also rarely signed their works, but dates usually are shown on the back from 1854.
  • Most later pictures were catalogued using different systems with catalogue numbers on the back top left. At least 6 number sequences of superficially similar pictures belong to the circle.
  • No dealer buying large lots of Petits in the 1980s and 1990s separated the circle’s work, although all had some mixed with Petit’s. So many non-Petits have been sold as Petit, although still a fraction of the total

An Assessment of the Differences

As with Petit’s own work there is a big difference between earlier, pre-mid-1840s, work by the circle and later. Earlier circle drawings exist but are usually more clearly of a different style, with different handwriting on mounts. A few can cause problems but such instances are nowhere near as frequent as for later drawings. So far, only one or two albums of early circle works have been noted, out of 30 or so Petit albums of early work.

In the later period, the circle used the same paper, a similar palette and drew the same type of subject in a similar style; yet there are differences in the drawing and in the information on the back.

On the back, the handwriting of the location and date are by different hands. While we cannot be sure of the differences between the sisters, we can nearly always be sure of the differences between Petit and the rest. There are only a tiny number of examples where a sister’s handwriting is on a picture we would otherwise ascribe to Petit, and none going the other way.

Secondly, Emma (we think) catalogued most later pictures into sequential albums with catalogue numbers also on the back. Petit’s were in one set of albums with their system, and the others separate with other types of numbering. Petits are with typographed labels (generally) and the others with stenciled or other numbering (generally). Only in 1859, when one of the circle used typographed labels shaded blue or pink which has worn off, is there evidence of a similar numbering system.

Thirdly on the back, some pictures have Petit’s doodles (a whole art form in itself). They start in the mid-1850s, but infrequently. Their frequency increases until from 1860 they are more common than not. We have seen just a couple of circle pictures with doodles on the back. So doodles generally mean Petit.

The above differences are more recognisable with a large body of references and we are happy to help if queries are sent to us (images front and back please).

The styles of the artists also differ, often markedly. Emma, the most frequently found, did not do architecture nearly as well. Her buildings sometimes lack weight and substance. Her colours are often garish and jarring. While her pictures are jagged and sharp, Maria’s and Elizabeth’s are soft, smooth and tend to the insipid. Sarah Salt’s work is identifiable in 1856 as childish –  identifiable by comparison with Petit and Emma when just the three of them were together.

Perhaps the most intriguing artist of the circle is Amelia Reid, the younger sister of Petit’s wife. Her identified pictures are very few, yet very competent. She contributed works for a couple of Petit’s publications in the 1840s, travelled with his party on occasion in the 1850s, and was gifted a 100 pictures in Petit’s will. A reader of this site has written a short story which captures some of the intriguing aspects of Amelia, which is at https://mariansonthemawddach.com/2018/12/23/the-power-of-place-a-seasonal-story/ .

This is by no means to say that all Petits are good and all his sisters’ bad. Nothing was thrown away and plenty of Petits retained in the albums are unfinished sketches, or lack colour other than his first pinkish wash, or are architectural sketches that are more akin to notes, and lack artistic interest. And, on the other hand, there are a few very good pictures that cannot be ascribed to Petit. We have seen several among those from 1859, 1863 and 1865. In those better ones one might be tempted to say that Petit helped with defining the view or the underlying structure, but they remain the work of his companion, and can be enjoyed as such.

The Middle East 1865

A special note should be made of the family’s biggest trip, to the Middle East in 1864-5, which has caused confusion.

Certainly Emma, his wife Louisa, and at least one other accompanied him, maybe more.

They spent nearly 6 months, until May, in Egypt, the most leisurely trip Petit ever made, and then appeared to race through Syria (including Jerusalem), Turkey/Greece and Italy in 2 months, at Petit’s more typical pace. It is quite likely that this second part was just him and Emma and the rest returned separately.

Louisa painted birds, and copied some carvings from the ruins. Emma did numerous pictures in Egypt and Syria. These generally have a stenciled number in blue (1864-5) or red (1865) on the back. Petits have a typograph label either Egypt 1, Egypt 2, or Syria. The ‘other’ person, possibly Elizabeth, possibly Amelia, used an uncoloured stencil to number their pictures. Most Middle East Petits that were sent to auction in the early part of this century appear to be Emma’s.

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