Petit The Architectural Writer​

Petit was one of the foremost writers and speakers on Church Architecture in the mid-19th Century, and one of very few standing against the re-introduction of 14th Century Gothic for new building or restoration, as prescribed by his opponents. He stood for originality in new work, and preservation of the old, believing there was great beauty in all previous styles that we should incorporate. He devoted his art and speaking to identifying the forms and proportions of beauty in ecclesiastical architecture; although what he proposed applies to all architecture. Eventually this point of view became accepted without question, at the time it required tremendous strength of spirit to oppose the tide of fashion and intrigues of the neo-gothic party.

A list of his works and speeches so far noted is below.

The Context

Petit was far from alone in his interest in church architecture, and medieval church architecture. In the 19th century, as the Gothic revival gathered pace, many gentlemen pursued, often intensely, antiquarianism, architecture and archaeology. Oxford and Cambridge were the only universities in England until the 1820s, nearly half of all graduates took holy orders, far more than the number who actually worked as priests. Architecture was gradually becoming professionalized with the establishment of the Institute for Architecture in 1834 and which became the Royal Institute (RIBA as we know it today) in 1837.

A religious revival had begun early in the 19th century to reverse the wasteful neglect of churches and religious observance in the late 18th century. Linking religious revival with the literary and romantic interest in Gothic produced the fashion for restoring old churches and building new ones in the Gothic of the 14th Century. This had taken over all building commissions by the 1830s. Following the appearance of Auguste Pugin’s Contrasts in 1835, “a manifesto for 14th century gothic” this was presented as a moral imperative. It became effectively dogma in the 1840s and 1850s following the founding of the Ecclesiological Society in 1839 and its journal the Ecclesiologist in 1841, which castigated architects or writers who deviated from its approved style.

Remarks on Church Architecture

Petit’s first writing, Remarks on Church Architecture appeared in 1841, but would have been conceived in the mid 1830s, possibly in response to Pugin’s Contrasts, and was completed in 1840. Its basic point was to collect a huge number of examples from the UK and Europe to demonstrate the beauty of all different styles of architecture, and argue against one correct style. At this stage Petit was not opposed to neo-Gothic, and indeed admired Pugin’s buildings, but argued that imitation was a poor form of architecture, and that there was so much more tradition to draw upon, which should be used to create original designs. He also inveigled against thoughtless restoration where architects imagined they could improve on the original but invariably did damaged irreplaceable heritage.

His book fuelled an already very controversial debate. The Gentleman’s magazine called it the best book on the subject to appear for years, while the Ecclesiologist devoted a large part of the March issue of its first volume, in 1842, to an extensive and vitriolic criticism – claiming that beauty should play no role in judging holy architecture, that any variation from the one correct style should not be considered, and certainly not using foreign ‘pagan’ models.

By contrast, Professor Freeman, writing the History of Architecture in 1849 referred to Petit as the ‘first of all architectural critics’ and Remarks as one of only two works who were valuable to study (the other being a Historical Essay by the now deceased Benjamin Hope).

These debates evolved, but in essence continued to dominate Petit’s writing and speaking for the remaining 27 years of his career.

Evolution from Ecclectic to Anti-Gothic

Petit continued to defend his positions and build his reputation until 1854 and publication of his second major work, Architectural Studies in France.

In 1844-45 the Archaeological Institute was founded as a more participative and more active offshoot of the Society for Antiquaries – to advocate a more rational, research driven and conservation oriented approach to the national heritage. Petit was one of the most active contributors to its Journal, and through speeches to its annual congresses. In addition he spoke to many of the local societies active or starting up at that time.

From 1846-8 he published four smaller volumes of his speeches, all of which are hard to find now. The best is Remarks on Architectural Character, a large folio size book of a speech and illustrations presented to the Lichfield Architectural Society in 1845. It has only 15 pages of text, and 45 illustrations. Perhaps as a result of the criticism Petit discusses the irreplaceable character of different styles of church architecture in the UK to make the same points that it must not be defaced, and cannot be imitated. The second edition of his first book refers to Petit as “author of Remarks on Architectural Character”, perhaps an indication of its greater than passing relevance.

By 1850 Petit believed that the neo-Gothic dogma was plain wrong. His answer was to investigate deeply the round arch styles of the three most relevant provinces of France during study tours to France from 1850-52. The result, Architectural Studies in France, is not quite as specialist as it sounds, with broader introductory and concluding chapters on why the neo-Gothic creed of the day was too limiting. Philip Delamotte, the pioneer of photography in the UK and a good friend of Petit’s contributed some of the 130 illustrations; most were again based on Petit’s watercolours.

Leading the Opposition

By the mid-1850s the battle seemed to be divided into two camps: the gothic party led by Gilbert Scott, the Ecclesiologists and other prominent architects such as Beresford-Hope, and those opposed to such a restrictive view. Among these Petit was one of, if not the, most prominent.

Petit continued to speak and write articles for the next decade until his death in 1868. RIBA, which was gradually moving into the prominent position it enjoys today, sponsored the annual Architectural Exhibition where he was one of its most frequent lecturers. Petit also gave two papers to RIBA itself. These were on the Ecclesiastical architecture of Italy, and of the Middle East. The first was very well received, the second met with skepticism. Petit would continually push the boundaries of convention in architecture, and tried his hand with two buildings, one of which, the Caerdeon Chapel in Wales still stands (see separate page).

Later Perceptions

Yet by the 1870s, and the founding of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings all had come to agree the importance of preservation, the impossibility of recreating the power of ancient gothic by copying, and the need to be original even when working in gothic. Eventually even this gave way to the greater originality of the 20th century and Petit can be said to have achieved full vindication, although without ever getting the credit his ideas deserved.

In the 20th Century those advocating gothic of various types, especially Ruskin and Gilbert Scott have been accorded much greater acclaim, by for example Pevsner and other 20th century critics, but this view is rather one-sided. Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture of 1849, and Stones of Venice in 1853, are certainly dramatic and contentious reads, while Gilbert Scott, the pre-eminent architect of the Victorian era used his position to write his own version of architectural history in his Recollections towards the end of his life.

If modern criticism of the period has focused mainly on those who advocated Gothic, perhaps this is understandable since they had most effect. Most new buildings of the Victorian age are neo-gothic, and most medieval churches were restored using that style. Yet there were many who opposed the strictures of this movement, and among these Petit stands out as being one of the most attractive and thoughtful writers of his generation.

List of Books, Articles and Speeches by the Reverend J L Petit

A. Books

Name

Year Published

Pages

Illustrations

1. Remarks on Church Architecture

1841

470

278

(1 by other)

2. Remarks on Architectural Character

1846

11

45

3. Remarks on the Principles of Gothic Architecture applied to ordinary Parish Churches

1846

10

2

4. Remarks on Romsey Abbey Church

1846

8

8

5. The Abbey Church of Tewkesbury, with a Description of its Plan and Architectural Peculiarities

1848

25

10

(2 by A. Reid)

6. Architectural Studies in France

1854

203

210

(44 by P.H. Delamotte)

7. Remarks on Boxgrove Priory (Part of book by Willis, Petit, Sharpe, speeches given in 1853)

1861

40

8

B. Articles in the Archaeological Journal

On Bell Turrets.                                                

Vol I, 1844

Tong Church, Salop                                           

Vol II, 1845

Ecclesiastical Antiquities of the Isle of Man

Vol III, 1846

Architectural Notes in the Neighbourhood of Cheltenham

Vol V, 1848

Architectural Notices Relating to Chiefly to Ecclesiastical Structures in the County of Gloucester

Vol VI, 1849

Architectural Notices Relating Chiefly to Churches in the County of Sussex

Vol VI, 1849

Architectural Notices Relating to the Church of Gillingham, Norfolk (Mostly by T Hill)

Vol VII, 1850

Notes on Examples of Ecclesiastical Architecture in France pt 1

Vol VIII, 1851

Notes on Examples of Ecclesiastical Architecture in France pt 2

Vol IX, 1852

Architectural Notices Buildwas Abbey Shropshire

Vol XV, 1857

Notes on Circular Churches

Vol XVIII, 1861

Decorative Coloured Brickwork in Rouen

Vol XIX, 1862

Remarks on Medieval Architecture in the East pt 1

Vol XXIII, 1866

Remarks on Medieval Architecture in the East pt 2

Vol XXIII, 1866

Howden Church (posthumous)

Vol XXV, 1868

Cartmel Priory Church, Lancashire (posthumous)

Vol XXVII, 1870

Church St Radagonde nr Tours (posthumous)

Vol XLIX, 1887

C. Speeches and Other (probably not complete)

In addition to those subsequently published as books, see Section A 2,3,4,5,7.

Remarks on Beverley Minster                                               

AI Annual Meeting, York, 1846

Architectural Notes in the Neighbourhood of Cheltenham                                          

Cheltenham Literary and Philosophical Inst 1847?

Wymondham Church [Norfolk]

AI Annual Meeting, Norwich, 1847

Remarks on Southwell Minster

AI Annual Meeting, Lincoln, 1848

Remarks on Wimbourn Minster

AI Annual Meeting, Salisbury, 1849

Remarks on Sherborne Minster

AI Annual Meeting, Oxford, 1850

Remarks on Brinkburn Priory [Northumberland]

AI Annual Meeting, Newcastle, 1852

Architectural Principles and Prejudices

Northampton Mechanics Institute, 1854

Remarks on Italian Architecture

RIBA 1855

Utilitarianism in Architecture

Architectural Exhibition, 1855

On the Use of Ancient Architectural Examples

Architectural Exhibition, 1856

Buildwas Abbey, Shropshire

AI Annual Meeting, Shrewsbury, 1857

Remarks on Byzantine Architecture

RIBA, 1858

The Architecture of the South of Europe

St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural Society, 1859

Shifnal Church

British Archaeological Association, Annual Meeting Shrewsbury, 1860

On the Revival of Architectural Styles

Architectural Exhibition, 1861

On the Picturesque in Architecture

Architectural Exhibition, 1863

Remarks on Egyptian Architecture

Architectural Exhibition, 1866

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