"John Louis Petit and the Black Country" by Chris Baker

This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of the Blackcountryman. Unfortunately a number of figures were omitted and some other figure captions were incorrect. The electronic version of that edition on the web site contains a correction page, and the full corrected article is given here for convenience.


Preamble

The “Gothic Revival” In church architecture in the mid-nineteenth century was largely driven by the Ecclesiological Society, formed in 1839, the members of which were insistent that the only proper design of church building was the decorated gothic style of the middle ages. Proponents of this style included Augustus Pugin and Gilbert Scott and many of the Anglican churches that were built in the second half of the nineteenth century reflected these principles. There were however, a small but vociferous opposition who advocated careful preservation of medieval buildings and that new work should build on and complement earlier styles. The arguments between the factions reached a quite astonishing level of intensity and vitriol. For example, the rather unpretentious chancel of St. Michael’s church in Lichfield, which will be referred to in what follows, was described by the local branch of the Ecclesiological Society as “…a hideous and unnecessary aftergrowth... so substantial a deformity….” and was duly rebuilt in the proper style. It can be fairly said that the Ecclesiologists won the argument at the time, and as ever, the history of the period was written by the winners, so the views of their opponents get little coverage. Tastes change however, and the work of those who favoured an evolutionary approach to church architecture is once again beginning to be appreciated.


One of these was the Rev. John Louis Petit (1801-1868), a talented watercolourist, who painted hundreds of pictures of churches in Britain and around Europe that were used to illustrate the talks that he gave to large audiences. His paintings were never sold commercially and have only recently begun to be discovered and publicly exhibited by the Petit Society. The website of the Society (http://revpetit.com) gives a huge amount of detail about the development of his quite unique style that somehow captures the emotional impact of the church buildings he drew.

From a Black Country point of view however, John Louis Petit and his family are also of interest in two ways. First of all the Petit family derived much of their considerable wealth from the Ettingshall Park Estate in Sedgley, where one of them was responsible for the building of the folly we know as Sedgley Beacon. Secondly, John Louis also painted a small number of Black Country industrial scenes which show very early, and accurate, representations of the iron and coal industry. We consider both these aspects in what follows. First however we give a brief history of the Petit family.


The Petit family

The first of the Petit family to arrive in England was Lewis Petit (1665-1720), a member of the ancient Norman family of Petit des Etans, who, with many other Hugenots, fled to England from Caen on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. He served in the British army as an engineer, rose to the rank of brigadier-general and was appointed lieutenant-governor of Minorca from 1708 to 1713. One of his two sons, John Peter Petit, married Sarah, daughter of John Hayes of Wolverhampton, the owner of the Ettingshall Park Estate near Sedgley. John Hayes died in 1736, and left Ettingshall to his son, another John Hayes. This John himself died in 1745 and the estate went to Sarah and her sister, and thus ultimately to John Peter Petit. Ettingshall Park was a large, originally arable estate, that even at that stage was beginning to be exploited for its coal and ironstone reserves. It is from that estate that much of the Petit wealth derived.


John Peter and Sarah’s only son, John Lewis Petit (1736-1780) qualified as a doctor in 1767 and was physician to St. George’s Hospital from 1770 to 1774, and to St. Bartholomew’s from 1774 until his death. He and his wife Katherine had three sons John Hayes Petit (1771-1822), Peter Hayes Petit (1773-1809) and Louis Hayes Petit (1774-1849), but clearly lacked imagination in the giving of names. Peter was a lieutenant-colonel of the 35th Foot and died of a wound received at Flushing in Holland during th