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God in the midst of creation — the art of J. L. Petit

by
09 September 2022

Philip Modiano considers the work of the priest and pre-Impressionist painter J. L. Petit

Philip Modiano

A simple parish church at Ore, East Sussex, by John Louis Petit

A simple parish church at Ore, East Sussex, by John Louis Petit

CENTRAL to understanding J. L. Petit’s art is that he never painted for money, and thus escaped the main dilemma for most artists then and now. Petit was fortunate in that he did not need to live from his art. His father, the incumbent vicar of Shareshill, just north of Wolverhampton, had been wealthy, having inherited extensive landholdings in the region.

He died in 1822, when Petit was just 21, and the family then moved to Lichfield. Petit himself took holy orders after graduating from Cambridge in 1825, as did a high proportion of graduates in those days. Unlike most, he actually worked as a curate in Lichfield, and then at Bradfield, in Essex, until 1834, when he resigned parish duties to focus on his twin vocations of art and church architecture for the rest of his life.

Invariably, he was described as modest, generous, and “noble-hearted”. Petit became a public figure late, aged 40, with the publication of his first book, Remarks on Church Architecture, in 1841. Praised by some as the best architectural work by any living author, the book catapulted him to the centre of the heated architectural debates around the revival of Gothic.

The first the public saw of his art were the 290 illustrations completed for Remarks. With just a handful of exceptions, these were all traced from his own pen-and-ink drawings, which in turn were based on his own watercolours done on the spot.

Philip ModianoHuddlesford Mill, outside Lichfield, painted by John Louis Petit, 1855

With this first book, Petit became the leading opponent of the Gothic Revival for church architecture. A pioneer of preserving existing old buildings, at the same time he advocated that modern architecture should be original, building on all earlier traditions and not copying one style deemed “correct”. Somewhat heroically, he held these positions until his death in 1868.

From the mid-1840s, he started delivering public lectures where he exhibited his watercolours, partly to illustrate what he was saying. One report noted that more than 100 of Petit’s pictures were pinned to the walls.

 

THROUGHOUT his life, Petit painted modern utilitarian structures to show their architectural power in contrast to the artificiality of Victorian revived Gothic. But the majority of his pictures were ancient churches — only genuine Gothic, never modern ones — and natural landscapes.

Petit’s church paintings aimed to capture the character of those ancient buildings, their diverse beauty and centrality in the community. Some 800 of these pictures were reproduced in his publications. His wider scenes and landscapes, on the other hand, showed the particular beauty of nature, the work of God.

Philip ModianoParis, painted by John Louis Petit in 1861

This understanding can occasionally be found in his books, but is voiced directly and often in his poem The Lesser and the Greater Light. Its goal was to reconcile science with a belief in God. Petit was by no means alone in facing this question in the mid-19th century.

For Petit, the wonders of nature are both perceived and understood through science, while, at the same time, they are a proof of God’s existence:
 

What! Shall we own the written witness true
And not the record of creation too?
Are they but freaks of chance or toys designed
To cheat and dazzle some enquiring mind?
 

In taking this serious approach to landscape, Petit’s work reflects what Ruskin had called for. Modern painters criticised all previous landscape art before J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), which “has never made us feel the wonder, nor the power, nor the glory of the universe; it has not prompted to devotion, nor touched with awe”.

In directly addressing that challenge, Petit is Ruskinian; and some of Ruskin’s Modern Painters helps us appreciate Petit better. Mountain, marine, or simple village scenes, often with a church in the distance, convey the spirituality of nature, but only the beauty that is there, not some idealised approximation, no artificial picturesqueness.

Philip ModianoArtix, near Pau, painted by John Louis Petit in 1859

In one of his speeches in 1856, Petit wrote: “. . . It is certain that a studied picturesqueness, if not wholly valueless, is incomparably of less value than that which is inartificial.” That sentiment Petit applied equally to Gothic Revival architecture and to his art of medieval Gothic and landscape.

 

OFTEN in a Petit landscape, there is a church in the middle or far distance. The focus is not the architectural detail, but the church in the landscape, natural or urban. There can be little doubt of Petit’s intention in these pictures.
 

Far o’er the waste his hospitable light
Gleams not to warn or threaten, but invite;
His call is heard, to welcome and to press
The weary stranger from the wilderness.
 

Ruskin similarly believed that art should neither exclude, nor focus solely on, man and his affairs. The combining of the church with nature or town is one of the ways in which Petit balances and locates man and his works in the wider natural world, while at the same time forming an aspect of his study of church architecture. Mountain pictures especially point to the relative proportions of man’s versus God’s works.

Mountain pictures where there is no church to be seen are often equally serious and spiritual. Rock studies are no less contemplative, capturing the depths of nature, and the weight of the rocks, with a few brush strokes.

Petit’s poem leaves little doubt as to his thoughts on the wonders of nature, be it the mountains of the Pyrenees or Wales, or individual rocks.
 

Earth’s fleeting gems in wild profusion thrown
Outshine the pomp of Israel’s richest throne . . .
a truth, which dwells at hand
In every flower, each leaf, each grain of sand.
 

There are fewer shipping and tree studies than in the 1830s. Nature as God’s work chimes with our realisation, almost too late, of the fragility of the natural world. For Petit, Ruskin, and others, the challenge was different: to reconcile the discoveries of science, and especially Darwin’s theories of evolution, with what they had been taught and believed in — God’s ultimate role in creation.

 

This is an edited extract from J. L. Petit: Britain’s lost Pre-Impressionist by Philip Modiano, published by RPS Publications at £20; 978-1-91649-312-4.

Philip Modiano will be speaking at the Churches Conservation Trust lunchtime lecture on Thursday 22 September, live-streamed on facebook.com/ChurchesConservationTrust.

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