John Louis Petit was a notable architectural historian and watercolour painter of the Victorian period. As an artist, he specialised in depicting historic buildings, particularly churches, in order to provide a record and illustrate his writings. He applied his swift, fresh handling – influenced by earlier topographers – to a wide range of subjects, from Manningtree to the Middle East. However, while his watercolours demonstrate a love of Medieval architecture, he became the leading opponent to the revival of the Gothic style for ecclesiastical building and especially where it led to destructive restoration. John Louis Petit was descended from the Huguenot family of Petit des Etans from Caen in Normandy, and would prove to be its last male representative. He was born in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, on 31 May 1801, the eldest son of Harriet Petit (née Astley) and the Rev John Hayes Petit, perpetual curate of Shareshill, Staffordshire, and owner of the Ettingshall Estate, in the same county.
Following his education at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge (1819-23), he inherited this estate from his father, in 1822, and lived on the profits made from mining the coal, iron ore and limestone that lay within its bounds. In 1828, he married Louisa Elizabeth Reid, in Wye, Kent.
Having been ordained as a deacon in 1824, and as a priest in 1825, Petit became an assistant curate at St Michael’s, Lichfield, from 1825-28, and then worked as curate at the twin parishes of Bradfield and Mistley, near Manningtree, Essex, from 1828 to 1834. While in these positions, he developed his artistic talents and antiquarian interests, which were fuelled by his travels. He made his first extensive Continental tour in 1839, publishing the results of his experiences two years later, in an early book, Remarks on Church Architecture. One of those who helped found the British Archaeological Institute (at Cambridge in 1844), he was also alive to contemporary debates in architecture, notably opposing George Gilbert Scott’s plans to replace the Gothic fabric of the south transept of St Mary’s Stafford (in 1841).
In 1834, Petit resigned his curacy and moved to The Uplands, Shifnal, Staffordshire. He remained there until the late 1840s, when he returned to Lichfield, which remained his principal home until his death in 1868. During this later period, he focussed on his antiquarian interests, publishing a number of books and pamphlets and, as a result, being elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (1850) and an honorary member of the Institute of British Architects. His major work was Architectural Studies in France (1854), though his writings also included British subjects, for instance The Abbey Church of Tewkesbury (1848) and The Architectural History of Chichester Cathedral (1861, in collaboration with Edmund Sharpe and Robert Willis).
An able draughtsman and watercolourist, Petit worked ‘in the tradition of English topographical … painters of the previous generation’ (Guy Braithwaite), and recorded many buildings, in whole and part, in order to illustrate his own writings. He also designed at least one building of his own: the church of St Philip Caerdeon, near Barmouth, north Wales. It was commissioned in 1862, by his brother-in-law, the Rev William Edward Jelf, so that he could take services in English. Its style, based on that of chapels in the Pyrenees, proved controversial.
Following an extensive tour of the Middle East in the years 1864-65, he lived in Lichfield until his death on 1 December 1868. The following year saw a memorial exhibition of his drawings at the Architectural Exhibition Society, in Conduit Street, London, and the posthumous publication of his poem, The Lesser and the Greater Light.
His work is represented in the collections of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield, and Staffordshire Museums and Art Gallery.
Further reading: Guy Braithwaite, ‘Petit, John Louis (1801-1868)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 43, pages 890-892; Philip Modiano, ‘The Revd J L Petit (1801-1868) and the beauty of churches’, The British Art Journal, 2015, vol XVI, No 3, pages 2-11
With thanks to Philip Modiano for his help in compiling this entry.