Wednesday 25 May 2022


 This morning, wandering in the churchyard of St Michael's, Lichfield (where Dr Johnson's parents are buried, as well as some of Philip Larkin's forebears), I came across the grave of the Rev. John Louis Petit – a name that somewhere rang the faintest of bells. An informative board standing near the grave, and subsequent online delving, revealed that Petit, who was for a while curate of St Michael's, was a prolific and original topographical watercolorist, and a leading player in what might be called the architectural style wars of the early and pre-Victorian period. While Pugin and the Camden Society carried all before them, Petit argued strongly against the excesses of Gothicism, and in favour of minimal restoration of buildings (rather than wholesale Gothicising) and drawing on earlier styles – and on the architecture of other countries – to develop an original approach that did not ape the 'one true style', i.e.Gothic. In this he was, while the battle raged, on the losing side, with the big guns of the Gothic Revival (including, at the time, George Gilbert Scott) ranged against him. Developments later in the 19th century, with the work of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the growth of more relaxed and eclectic building styles, vindicated Petit's general ideas, but he was still destined to be largely forgotten by all but architectural historians. 
  As a watercolorist, Petit developed a style that combined accuracy with an attempt to convey the emotional impact of buildings. Many of his pictures look, by Victorian standards, unfinished, harking back to an earlier Romantic style. He used some of these paintings in his books and educational activities, and left vast numbers, often mixed in with work by his almost equally prolific sisters, at his death. They were soon widely dispersed, some were damaged and some lost, others sold off in batches at auction. Only in recent years have research and conservation efforts rescued some portion of his huge output and focused attention on the all but forgotten Petit. Above is his painting of Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire.   

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