‘Forgotten master’: English artist whose work was lost for 120 years celebrated | Art

A forgotten 19th century artist whose entire work disappeared for 120 years has been compared to JMW Turner by a prominent art historian.

John Louis Petit, an English clergyman who gave up his vocation to focus on art and architecture, produced thousands of paintings that were widely exhibited but never sold.

Upper Longdon (1867) by John Louis Petit. Photography: Philip Modiano

A book published this week tells the story of Petit, who was well known and highly regarded in the mid-19th century, but his work was virtually lost after his death in 1869. Its author, Philip Modiano, said he was “time for Petit to come out of the closets he’s been hiding in, forgotten, for generations and take his rightful place at the head table.”

According to art historian and critic Andrew Graham-Dixon, the work “marks the rediscovery of a more or less completely forgotten master – an artist whose work, particularly in the medium of watercolor, reaches the highest heights of innovation and virtuosity, worthy of comparison with that of Turner himself”.

Petit painted almost exclusively in watercolor and produced over 10,000 works. He was painting increasingly impressionistic paintings long before anyone had heard of Monet, Renoir or Impressionism, according to Modiano.

Graham-Dixon said Petit’s breadth of subject matter and lack of sentimentality were remarkable. “Few Victorian artists chose to document the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the fabric of life in this country, but Petit was anything but hesitant: he painted factories and smogs with the same passionate interest he brought to the more traditional themes of the English watercolourist, such as the village, the church and the cathedral.

From Waterloo Bridge (1830s) by John Louis Petit.
From Waterloo Bridge (1830s) by John Louis Petit. Photography: Philip Modiano

“To look at his work is to see a familiar world change from all recognition, and to understand the pace at which it was happening. In this sense, he is a prophet of Impressionism, a true ‘painter of modern life’, for to use an expression of Baudelaire.

Petit, who was of French Huguenot descent, was ordained in the Church of England but resigned from church work in 1834 to pursue his interest in art and architecture.

Whitby Norrey (c 1844) by John Louis Small.
Whitby Norrey (c 1844) by John Louis Small. Photography: Philip Modiano

He was admired as an artist and lectured on architecture. His first book, Remarks on Architecture, published in 1841, was hailed by some as the best book on the subject ever written. Others were appalled at his rejection of Gothic Revival conformity in church building.

Petit made no attempt to sell his paintings. After his death, his estate was divided between his sisters, with a nephew eventually inheriting almost all of the artwork.

They remained with the family for 120 years and were discovered in an attic or outbuilding of a house in Surrey which had belonged to Petit’s great-niece.

The new owners of the property were unaware of the significance of the paintings. They were dumped, hundreds at a time, at local auction houses in the 1980s and 1990s and then scattered around the world.

Modiano said, “For this book, I managed to find only about a third to a half of what is out there. There are many more small photos all over the country, in the United States and in Europe, which were bought up casually 30 years ago when dealers sold them at low prices. Some will have lost their attribution. This is the beginning, not the end of Petit’s rediscovery of art.

JL Petit – Britain’s Lost Pre-Impressionist by Philip Mondiano is published by RPS Publications, £20

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