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Alan Jacobs

The Mystery of Sarah Losh

Self-taught architect of a curious and beautiful church.

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And then, when Sarah was around fifty, Katharine died. Sarah was devastated by the loss, and never fully emerged from mourning in the 18 years of life remaining to her: on her death in 1853, she was buried with her sister, and their tombstone bears the inscription In vita divisae, in morte conjunctae—in life divided, in death conjoined—followed by a plea from the ancient hymn Te Deum laudamus: "Lord Let thy Mercy lighten upon us." But Katharine's death seems also to have driven Sarah into a period of astonishing imaginative creativity. The tiny local chapel of Wreay had fallen into disrepair, and Sarah convinced the local authorities to allow her to restore it; and then, on the discovery that it was too derelict for restoration, to do something more. In her own words, she agreed "to furnish a new site for the chapel and to defray all the expenses of its reerection," but only—and here we catch the glint of a steely will—"on condition that I should be left unrestricted as to the mode of building it." The offer, with its blunt condition, was accepted, and Sarah set to work.

The ultimate result was unlike any church in England, and in some respects unlike any church anywhere. Sarah knew perfectly well that the whole impetus of ecclesiastical architecture in England was toward the high Gothic style: indeed, many of the leading figures in the emergent Anglo-Catholic movement forcefully insisted that no other style was fully Christian. Sarah ignored them and built a church in a far simpler style that she herself called "early Saxon or modified Lombard": Romanesque, we might say, with rounded arches and small windows, but featuring certain structures, especially a rounded apse behind the altar, that recall churches built in Lombardy in northern Italy during its period of Byzantine power and influence. (Sarah might have seen some of these on her Continental travels.)

Only a very few of the oldest, and generally ruined, churches in northern England resembled it in the least, and Sarah may have had their basic structure in mind, which could account for her reference to "early Saxon." But the decorations both inside and outside the church—which she designed and even helped to create, carving some of the stone herself—have no real precedent anywhere. Uglow describes Sarah's insistent deployment of naturalistic forms, almost to the exclusion of any familiar Christian symbolism:

Around the central window a chrysalis rested on an oak leaf at each side, with six butterflies above, separated by poppy-heads, ripe with seeds, reaching up to lilies curving around two butterflies—their wings outspread and their antennae touching a band of ripe wheat. All these, including the butterflies, symbols of the soul, from their Greek name psyche, spoke of the earth. By contrast the carvings on the left-hand window conjured ancient oceans, with ammonites and nautilus fossils and staghorn coral. On the right, they took to the air. Fir branches met at the top and between the cones perched a raven, a scarab with open wings, a bee and a small, wise owl.

Sarah designed all of these images herself and, in a workshop she had built in her house, molded them in clay so local stonemasons could see in three dimensions just what she wanted. The forms are naturalized and yet stylized in a way that anticipates the Arts and Crafts movement and the kind of work that artists like Eric Gill would be doing some 75 years later.

The church abounds in curiosities. From the outer walls project a series of what Sarah called "emblematical monsters": a crocodile, a winged turtle, a snake, and (most charming of all) an open-mouthed dragon who serves to vent steam from a boiler. These are delightful, but some of the obscurest decorations tend rather to disturb, especially the iron arrows that stick into walls. No one has ever explained these, but local villagers believed that they were made in honor of William Thain, a soldier who was a close friend of the Losh family and who was killed in India as the church was under construction.

On a couple of occasions Uglow quotes the verdict of one Canon Hall—who, as vicar of Wreay for almost half a century, had more opportunity than anyone to see and reflect on the strange furnishings of the church—that Sarah's whole design is thoroughly Christian, every detail vibrating with theologically orthodox significance. Uglow is, I think, rightly doubtful about the good canon's interpretations, but her own tentative suggestion that Sarah was a Deist seems to me even less likely. The elaborate natural imagery of the church suggests rather something older, more pagan: an animistic world, pantheist or panentheist in tone. Sarah may have been no more sympathetic to the Deism common in the intellectual circles of her time than she was to the rise of the Gothic in architecture.

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