J.L. Petit: Britain’s Lost Pre-Impressionist

Book review

By Philip Modiano; reviewed by Richard Stone, published 15th June 2022

J.L. Petit: Britain’s Lost Pre-Impressionist, Philip Modiano, RPS Publications, 122p. 2022, £20. ISBN 978-1-9164931-2-4. 

Philip Modiano’s championing of prolific Victorian water-colourist and pioneering campaigner for the preservation of ancient buildings, Reverend John Louis Petit [1801-1868], continues to raise the profile of this neglected Staffordshire artist. His new book follows on from Petit’s Tours of Old Staffordshire [2019] and Clarke, Petit and St Mark’s – A 19th Century Journey on the Isle of Man, published earlier this year. 

After introducing us to Petit, Modiano explores his subject’s motivation, sets him in context with his contemporaries, and follows his subject’s artistic development chronologically. He is a measured, authoritative and passionate guide. Petit was an opponent of Gothic Revival. He believed architecture should be original, not merely copying the past but learning from it and taking tradition forward. He took the same approach to his art. Numerous examples of churches, seascapes and landscapes, show how Petit ceaselessly refined his technique, developing a looser, more impressionistic approach, anticipating the direction in which art was moving. His later architectural studies in particular have an extraordinary subtlety. Painted on the spot, they deftly capture the essence of the buildings depicted while losing nothing in authenticity. Petit is important as an artist but his works are also valuable as historical documents.  

This is the survey of his life and work Petit deserves. I hesitate to write that this is the definitive book. As his star rises and more of his work continues to come to light, we may cherish the hope there is yet more to come, both in terms of Petit’s art and information about his life. 

J.L. Petit Britain’s Lost Pre-Impressionist is published on 12 September.