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A Unique Church and the Unique Woman Who Designed It



Rob Hardy


Here is an architect you have never heard of: Sarah Losh. One of the reasons you haven't heard of Losh is that she has one fine church to represent her oeuvre. One of the reasons is that this little structure was built in 1842, and it was built in an out-of-the-way village, Wreay, outside of Carlisle in northern England. Another reason is simply that she was a woman, so she really wasn't an architect because women were not allowed to be architects. She was, however, an extraordinary woman in many ways, and now she has as full a biography as can ever be written. Jenny Uglow, who has written several outstanding books about personalities of that age and locale, has an appreciation for Losh's life and her remarkable church in The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine - Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary (Faber and Faber). The book has good pictures, and concentrates on St. Mary's Church in Wreay, partly out of necessity. Losh didn't leave much documentation of her life. She wrote poetry, but none of it remains, and she kept a journal which others read and treasured and kept passages from, but she burned her journals and other documents. If she ever fell in love, or wrote love letters, we have no evidence. What she did have, and what enables Uglow to tell her story in this fullness, is a bustling family with wealth coming in plentifully from the chemistry of the Industrial Age; a time of political upheaval and Losh's own radicalism; and the little church, which shows an energetic and independent mind. 




Losh got much of her education courtesy of her Uncle James, who, with her father John, was educated at Cambridge. The brothers made their fortune manufacturing chemicals, especially the alkali needed to make glass. John died early, but James was an enormous influence in the life of Sarah and her sister Katharine. James was a lawyer who favored the radical politics of the time, including the importance of education for women. He counted as friends William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Sarah may have been among the first to hear "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"), the essayist Thomas Holcroft, and the philosopher William Godwin. James actively got Katharine and Sarah reading; Sarah was familiar, for instance, with the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, and she grew up in an atmosphere in which it was acknowledged that women did not have to become wives, and they could remain independent.  




Her and her sister's independence, however, was based on the income and estates of the males in their family. James made sure that the sisters traveled to Europe, where Sarah got to see churches and paintings that would influence the style of her church. She was especially interested in the ruins of Pompeii. Upon their return, Sarah began tentatively remodeling the family home, adding rooms and changing the aspect of the front of the house. There was a nostalgia at the time, fueled by such works as the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and Losh's designs harked to the romantic past. She and her sister designed and built a simple mortuary chapel and a school building. Uglow writes, "It was quite common for the women of landowning families to fund and supervise the building of schools on their estates. It was another thing altogether for them to design the buildings, to work as an architect and site manager. Yet this is what Sarah and Katharine, determinedly independent, chose to do." 




Katharine suddenly died in 1835; it was a loss Sarah never overcame, but she used her grief to power her work on the church. The old church at Wreay was a relic, but the bishop of the area, and the Twelve Men of Wreay (landowners and farmers who oversaw village affairs) agreed grudgingly at first to its restoration, and then, only because Losh would pay for a new church, agreed to let her have her way. The land was made available, and Losh went to work. The church is a product of her own ideas and flew in the face of the Victorian revival of the Gothic style. Overall, she preferred her own version of a Romanesque design, but especially in the decoration of the church, she produced something unique. The nave is simple, almost like a small stone barn, but it is joined to a curved apse, so that it looks like a small Byzantine basilica. Losh loved her region's past, and had grown up admiring the round-arched Norman style which she was able to incorporate into her building. 




Her fascination for the past went much further back, however. She was especially interested in the fossils of her area, and the ammonites, corals, and ferns were carved into the church's doorways or installed in its stained-glass windows. (Losh could be nothing but an amateur in her geological interests - she could never have become a member of the Geological Society for the same reason she could not officially become an architect.) A plesiosaur serves as a gargoyle. Not content merely to install ancient creatures into her church, she crammed it with symbols from different creation myths, like lotus blossoms. Her pinecone, and there are pinecones all over the church, was also a symbol of reproduction and regeneration. The pinecone also suggests the shape of the pineal body, which Descartes had said was where the soul resides. (The pinecone had a meaning to Losh so deep that we will not fully understand it; the statue she ordered for the mausoleum shows Katharine holding a pinecone and regarding it intently.) On the arches and in the windows and on the walls are poppies, wheat, and gourds, and an eagle and a stork to hold up lecterns, and lotus-shaped candlesticks, and a baptismal font with carved lilies and lily-pads sticking out of the water. Losh herself did much of the carving. There is a mysterious arrow that looks as if it had just been shot deep into the baptistery wall; it might allude to the death of a friend of Losh's, William Thain, who died in the first Anglo-Afghan war (1839-1842). But no one knows. 




In fact, there were no frank memorials to anyone in the church. Not only that, but there were no depictions of saints. If you wanted to find a cross, you had to look for small versions in the windows or decorations; those lotus candlesticks stood in its place on the altar. Not everyone approved, and vicars afterward tried to put a Christian spin on the décor; that wasn't a stork holding up the lectern, for instance, but a pelican, the bird that symbolized charity, and that butterfly arising from the chrysalis represented resurrection. It was a bit of a strain to make the connections, but nothing Losh said or wrote indicated that she was aiming for these interpretations. Importantly, she installed no rood screen and no image of doom or judgement. Her building is a celebration not of belief but of beliefs, as well as of the natural world. It is convenient to think that it signifies some sort of easy pantheism, but you can still get to Anglican services there. 




That Losh could incorporate historical and natural trends in her tiny church in a little village shows the artistic importance of her work. Uglow's biography has the same merits, using the architect and her church as a mirror for the natural, religious, and scientific movements of Losh's time. Uglow thus gets to tell us about the railways, the industrial revolution, the fashions of architecture, the enthusiasm for antiquities, the Afghan war, and more. Molding the story of Sarah Losh's life from these external sources, since she left so little written documentation, is something like trying to find her within her lovely little church. Uglow writes that Losh "left stones and wood, not letters, for us to read." Losh now has a fine biography to supplement the stones and wood.



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