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Alan Jacobs

The Mystery of Sarah Losh

Self-taught architect of a curious and beautiful church.

In the village of Wreay in Cumbria, five miles from the city of Carlisle, stands the curious and beautiful St. Mary's Church, which since its construction in the mid-19th century has aroused much commentary and a good deal of wonderment. The pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti called it "a church in the Byzantine style, full of beauty and imaginative detail, though extremely severe and simple" and by any measure "much more original than the things done by the young architects now." But he could not find words to describe the church well and wished for others to see this "most beautiful thing." A century later the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner had his own descriptive struggles: he dubbed the building's style "Byzantino-Naturalistic," and said it was "a crazy building without any doubt."

Yet when Pevsner put the question "What is best in church architecture during the years of Queen Victoria?" he insisted that "the first building to call out" had to be the church at Wreay. Similarly, Simon Jenkins, in his lovely book England's Thousand Best Churches, calls St. Mary's "one of the most eccentric small churches in England" but thinks it a masterpiece with no clear antecedents, no pattern from which it derives. Its architect was "a single original mind, … an individual genius." That genius was not a professional architect—indeed, lacked any formal architectural training—and was merely the chief landowner in the vicinity of Wreay. Her name was Sarah Losh, and in The Pinecone Jenny Uglow tells her story.

The story, obviously, takes the form of a puzzle: Where did the idea for such a building come from? How could Sarah Losh have come up with it? Perhaps even more inexplicable is the question of how she, and the people she hired to build it, pulled off the design so successfully. Few writers could be better suited to pursue these questions than Uglow, who in her previous books—especially her finest, The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730-1810 (2002)—has demonstrated a great interest in how networks of like-minded people have the power to generate rich ideas and powerful inventions. The Lunar Men reveals how ambitious thinkers like the inventor James Watt, the physician and naturalist Erasmus Darwin, the manufacturer Matthew Boulton, the potter Josiah Wedgewood, and the scientist, theologian, and radical politician Joseph Priestley fed one another's minds in the years that they all lived in or around the city of Birmingham. In that account the lines of influence and mutual encouragement are clear—but how to account for Sarah Losh's solitary masterwork? That seems a far greater puzzle.

And indeed, Uglow does not manage to solve it. There is just not enough information to go on. Uglow surrounds the core story of the building of St. Mary's Church with dozens of digressive mini-essays about—well, about almost everything pertaining to the place and time: the geology of Cumbria as it was discovered and explored in the Romantic era, the history of its churches and religious monuments, the rise and development of the city of Carlisle, the financial connections of the Losh family with the industrial city of Newcastle, Sarah Losh's father's friendship with William Wordsworth, the rise of Anglo-Catholicism and its influence on ecclesiastical architecture, the history of the village of Wreay after Sarah Losh's death. All of these excurses are interesting and well-written, but as I read The Pinecone I struggled to discern clear patterns. Uglow's description of the building of the church commences about two-thirds of the way into the book, and the reader who started with Chapter 15 would be about as well-equipped to understand Sarah Losh's achievement as the reader who had read every previous page with care.

Stripped of Uglow's ample and learned contextualizing, the story goes like this. Sarah—as Uglow calls her throughout; I will follow that lead—was born into a Cumbrian landowning family near the beginning of 1786. She and her sister Katharine were given the sporadic and piecemeal education that was about the best that girls of their time could hope for, though Sarah's evident brilliance led to her pursuing ancient languages further than would have been common at the time. The sisters were by all accounts quite attractive, but neither ever showed any inclination to marry, and after the early deaths of their parents they became the socially and economically leading figures in their small world. They were both especially beloved as benefactors of the poor, but few elements of their local life escaped their attention and care. Katharine was the more outgoing, Sarah the more introspective and intellectual, but both were deemed charming. Above all they were inseparable companions, both at home and on their occasional travels to the Continent.

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.

But we are guessing here. Again and again Uglow comments that Sarah Losh's surviving letters and notes, of which there are many, tell us little or nothing about what she intended or even what she believed. Lacking authoritative guidance, we might do well to remember that the profusion of natural things in her church—or rather, representations in stone and wood of natural things, presented with restrained simplicity and yet lavish—arose in her mind in the aftermath of her deepest loss. The death of her sister is answered by a church dedicated to organic abundance, one that celebrates life, life, and more life.

The two stone railings at the back of the little church's nave are capped, at their inside ends, with stone pinecones: one enters the nave by walking between them. Their prominence is no more explicable than anything else in the building. Uglow notes that "the pinecone is an ancient symbol of regeneration, fertility, and inner enlightenment," as well as embodying in its Fibonacci-sequence structure what natural philosophers of Sarah's time would have called "Sacred Geometry," and she thinks the image important enough to title her book after it; but whatever its public meanings, one has to wonder whether it had for Sarah a private one. It was known in the village that before William Thain died he had sent a pinecone from India to Wreay, intending it to be planted there. The villagers made as much of this as they did of the arrows; the idea of Sarah lamenting a dead lover has an obvious romantic appeal, even though there is no indication that she ever had or sought lovers.

But there is one further point to note. In addition to the church, Sarah had built for Katharine a tiny mausoleum, a strikingly and intentionally crude little building—"Druidical," some called it—made of unmortared and rough-edged stone with no ornamentation and a flat roof. But within it is a smooth white marble sculpture of Katharine. She sits erect, leaning slightly forward, her right hand crossed to her left shoulder. She contemplates an object resting in her lap, held in the folds of her dress by her left hand. It is a pinecone.

Alan Jacobs is the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College and this fall will begin teaching in the Honors College of Baylor University. He is the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, due in October from Princeton University Press.

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