A forgotten 19th-century artist whose work has completely disappeared for 120 years Gmw Turner by a prominent art historian.
John Lewis Petty, an English clergyman who abandoned his call to focus on art and architecture, produced thousands of paintings that were widely shown but never sold.
A book published this week tells the story of Betty, who was known and highly regarded in the mid-19th century, but whose work was completely lost after his death in 1869. “It’s about time it’s time” to get Petty out of the vaults he’s been lurking in, said its author, Philip Modiano. It has been forgotten for generations and is taking its rightful place at the top table.”
According to Andrew Graham Dixon, art historian and critic, the book “marks the rediscovery of a somewhat utterly forgotten master–an artist whose work, especially in the midst of watercolor, reaches the highest levels of innovation and mastery, and is worthy of comparison with that even of Turner.”
Painted almost exclusively in watercolor, Petit has completed over 10,000 works. He was increasingly painting Impressionist portraits before anyone had even heard of Monet, Renoir, or Impressionism, According to Modiano.
Graham Dixon said Betty’s breadth of subject matter and lack of emotion were remarkable. Few Victorian artists chose to bear witness to the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the fabric of life in this country, but Betty did nothing but walk away from it: he painted factories and smog with the same passionate interest he brought to the more traditional subjects of the English watercolor painter, such as Village, church and cathedral.
“Looking at his work is to see a familiar world changing from each confession, and to understand the speed at which it was happening. In this sense, he is a prophet of Impressionism, and a true ‘painter of modern life’, in the words of Baudelaire.”
Petit, who hails from the French Huguenots, is painted in a church England But he resigned from the church business in 1834 to pursue his interest in art and architecture.
He admired him as an artist and gave lectures on architecture. Some have praised his first book, Notes on Architecture, published in 1841, as the best book ever written on the subject. Others were dismayed by his refusal to match the Gothic revival in church construction.
Petty did not try to sell his paintings. After his death, his possessions were divided among his sisters, with his nephew eventually inheriting nearly all of the artwork.
They had been with the family for 120 years, and discovered in the attic or outbuilding of a house in Surrey that had belonged to Betty’s granddaughter.
The new owners of the property were not aware of the significance of the paintings. They were dumped, hundreds at a time, at local auction houses in the ’80s and ’90s, and then spread all over the world.
For this book, Modiano said, “I was able to find about a third to a half of what is in there. There are many Petit pictures all over the country, in the USA and Europe, which were casually bought 30 years ago as dealers paid them overseas. An understatement. Some will lose their attribution. This is the beginning, not the end of rediscovering Betty’s art.”
JL Petit – The Lost British Pre-Impression by Philip Mondiano has been published by RPS Publications, valued at £20