on 24 September 2012
It is good that the achievement of Sarah Losh, landowner near Carlisle and amateur architect, should at last have been recognised in this fine book. St Mary's, Wreay is one of the very few churches to have been designed by a woman. Not only that, but its form is very unusual in this country, a small Lombardic cell with a wonderful apse. And all over it there is nature carving, all designed by Miss Losh. It is a remarkable building to find on the village green of a quiet, inconspicuous Cumbrian village. The carving prefigures the Arts and Crafts movement by forty years.
An interesting monograph on the church was compiled a few years ago by Stephen Matthews, owner of the excellent Bookcase bookshop in Carlisle, but I know he was delighted that Jenny Uglow became interested in Miss Losh; Jenny Uglow has an impressive list of good publications to her credit, and this book is elegantly written and as thorough as the sources allow. This latter point is really the only caveat (apart from a few typos): Miss Losh destroyed almost all her papers and so the author has to infer what she was like from the accounts of others and from the physical evidence contained in the church. There is much material about the extended Losh family, some of whom made a lot of money (and some of whom didn't), and figures as diverse as Wordsworth, Humphry Davy, George Stephenson and Lord Grey flit through these pages. What a small world it was in the early 19c.
A fine achievement, but how fascinating it would have been to explore Miss Losh's own papers and fill out her story.
The Pinecone tells the story of a church built during the early Victorian era in the village of Wreay, just outside Carlisle, and of the remarkable woman who designed it. In an age when Gothic architecture was all the rage the church was unusual for being built in a Romanesque style but, as Jenny Uglow's beautiful book reveals, the true uniqueness and brilliance of the building and the woman behind it goes much deeper than that.
Sarah Losh, intelligent, thoughtful, generous, was born into a respected and wealthy Cumbrian family. Much of her life only seems to be known to us at one remove. She is mentioned in the diaries and letters of her family, and the records and documents relating to the building of her church provide fascinating insights into the workings of her intellect and imagination and yet much about her remains tantalisingly opaque. In the diaries and letters we see her through the eyes of others but in her church we see her, perhaps, as she saw herself.
Sarah's family moved in exalted circles; Coleridge and Wordsworth were friends and they held influence with the great and the good of the North of England. They also followed the discoveries of their age. The early 1800s saw tremendous advances in science and industry with many of the innovations that reached fruition in the Victorian era - the extensive railways and the rise of the merchantile middle-classes for example - having their origins in the late-Georgian period. Behind the technological triumphs however there are fears and doubts. Lyle's work in the field of geology sows the first seeds of unease that will grow to fruition in the work of Charles Darwin. All of this fascinating intellectual and spiritual ferment somehow found expression in a small church in the north of England.
What is particularly beautiful and remarkable about Sarah's achievement is the way she employed local craftsmen to reflect the spirit of the age and then combined it with so much that was personal (especially her close relationship with her sister) in order to render it so eloquently in wood and stone. The decoration of the church abounds with signs of nature, myth, the passing of the seasons and the cycle of death and renewal. Traditional Christian imagery is largely replaced by something almost akin to the pagan. Candle-holders are shaped like lotus flowers; pinecones - symbols of renewal and rebirth - feature heavily, ammonites, scarabs and poppies abound. The story of how all of this came about, and of the personal road travelled by Sarah Losh in order to reach such a destination, is all beautifully told in what is an absolutely fascinating book. Sarah Losh was a woman ahead of her time and, with this biography, perhaps she will finally receive the acknowledgement and admiration she deserves. Highly recommended.
on 16 October 2012
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 advocated various liberal policies including education for women. He also got Sarah and her sister Katharine to Europe, where Sarah got to see churches and paintings that would influence the style of her church. 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, and she convinced the church and civic fathers that a new one was needed; they agreed, and since she was paying for it, they agreed to let her have her own way in its design. 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. 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. 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. 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 were no memorials in the church, no depictions of saints, and almost no crosses. 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.
On Candlemas Eve in 1836, the Twelve Men of Wreay met to consider Miss Losh's request to make improvements on the road through Wreay where it passes the church and burial ground, to expand the churchyard. Miss Sarah Losh, then aged 50 and unmarried, was the largest landowner and wealthiest resident in her part of Cumbria, near Carlisle and close to the border with Scotland.
Miss Losh's petition was successful, and six years later she constructed a new church of yellow sandstone. While the style of this new church, called St Mary's, anticipated the Romanesque revival, it incorporated symbolism from different pasts: turtles and dragons were gargoyles, an eagle perched on top of the belfry, and the interior included `strange stained glass, bright leaves on black backgrounds, kaleidoscopic mosaics, alabaster cut-outs of fossils.' There are snakes and tortoises, lotus flowers and pomegranates. And everywhere there were pinecones - `an ancient symbol of regeneration, fertility and inner enlightenment' - carved onto the walls, into the roof beams and on the front door-latch.
`To call herself an `architect' would have been unthinkable: that was a man's profession, and she was a woman and an amateur.'
We know what Miss Losh achieved, but not really why she did it. Miss Losh destroyed most of her personal papers, and the house she lived in has long been cleared of its contents.
In this biography, Ms Uglow writes that she first saw St Mary's as a girl, and `years later crossing the road from the green in a haze of Cumbrian rain... I became curious about its creator'. Dante Gabriel Rossetti visited the church in 1869, sometime after Sarah Losh's death, and described it as `full of beauty and imaginative detail, though extremely severe and simple'.
Sarah Losh (1785-1853) was the eldest of the three legitimate children of John Losh. John Losh himself was the eldest of four surviving brothers, who made their fortune in an alkali works, and then from iron foundries and railways. Sarah and her sister Katharine became their father's heirs - examples, in Ms Uglow's words of `how the industrial revolution made some women independent.' Well, independent up to a point. In a different era, Sarah Losh might have designed and built cathedrals, but in 19th century Britain this could not be possible.
I found this book fascinating. I enjoy the way Ms Uglow writes (which was the main reason I picked up this book in the first place). In another place and time, Ms Losh might well have achieved more and different things. But St Mary's, finished in 1842 with the Pennines to the east, and the mountains of the Lake District to the west, has its own mystery and charm. The photographs included in the book are a great adjunct to the text: I wanted to see and to know more about Sarah Losh and her work.
on 6 December 2013
I've been a fan of Jenny Uglow's for some while, but this book was a little disappointing. Here are a few reasons:
The book has clearly been researched in depth, but it lacks focus. It claims to be the story of Sarah Losh, yet as other reviewers have commented it is at least as much about her family - a very interesting family, which would merit a book in its own right. Also, every time the narrative drifts off into the family archives, it accumulates a clutter of miscellaneous and distracting trivia which should have been sifted out.
The sub-title is "The story of Sarah Losh, Romantic heroine, architect and visionary". Romantic heroine - eh? SL appears to have been a good and distinguished person, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing in this book to substantiate the word "heroine". That's just plain misleading language. I'll bet it helps sell more copies, though.
The writing is also sometimes uncharacteristically careless. A couple of random examples: on p 193 there is the ugly sentence, "This would hurt Sarah, being such a careful gardener herself"; and in pp 281-3 there is a cataphoric shift from 1884 to "this century" which I think will catch most readers off-balance.
Overall, then, the book gives the impression of having started from an unclear brief, and of the raw material having been bundled together in some haste.
If that sounds over-critical, I should also say that I couldn't put the book down, that I would still recommend it with reservations, that it revived my interest in a fascinating period of our past, that I'll visit the church at Wreay just as soon as I can.
LATER: I visited the church, twice - what a wonderful place.
on 13 July 2014
Sarah Losh was born in Cumbria in the late 18th century and lived to the mid-19th century. She was born into a well-to-do family who had interests in farming and industry. That could be where the story ends because Sarah Losh is not a well-known character who had great influence at the time, she was no great beauty, she made no impressive marriage. However Sarah was an intelligent woman who used her money to support the lives of the people around her and, through learning, she left a legacy for the small Cumbrian village that she lived in - a beautiful church.
This is a terrific book in that it places Sarah Losh into the context of the times that she lived in. The Losh family were deeply involved in the Industrial Revolution and, whilst their finances had their ups and downs, they made a success of business. Sarah was independently wealthy and philanthropic but she was also a woman who was interested in science and theology, sociology and history. All of this was expressed in her church.
Sarah Losh could be a character completely lost to history but Uglow tells her story and the story of her times in beautiful way and that in itself is a great legacy to an extraordinarily quiet woman
on 16 January 2013
Sarah Losh was a proto feminist if not quite in the league of Mary Wolstencraft but worthy of this outstanding biography. She lived in Wreay (to rhyme with rear) near Carlisle. Sarah rebuilt the church of St Mary's to her own design and had a hand in many acts of largesse. The title of the biography is the 'Pinecone,' reflecting Sarah's interest in mathematics and the Fibonacci sequence.
St Mary's church anticipated the 'Arts and Crafts' movement by over half a century.
The book is a little rambling, however for a taste of the social mores of the early to mid 19th centuries in a rural parish it is invaluable. Recommended!
on 25 February 2013
A very readable account of the life of a remarkable woman set in the social life of her time: the Cumberland village in which she lived and the industrial background which was the source of her family fortune. The book does not intend to be a guide book to the church of St Mary, Wreay, but it describes how this Romanesque building came to be built in the 1840s and the sources of its amateur architect's inspiration. I was disappointed by the coloured plates and, although I appreciate that cost limited their size and number, I would contrast the photograph of the interior of the church with the monochrome picture of the same view in Pevsner's "Cumberland and Westmorland" which is so much clearer. Nevertheless this book would be a valuable addition to the library of anyone with an interest in Cumbria, church history or the industrial revolution and its effects in the North of England.
on 13 August 2013
One is led to believe that this book is about the woman who designed this extraordinary church, and to an extent it is, but one has to wade through a great deal on her extended family and the local families which did not interest me. but I can see that just writing about the buildings would not have made a book so there had to be the family stuff, but i did wish there was a lot less. However Jenny Uglow writes well and is very knowledgeable. The church, the building of it ,& the other buildings are very well described and I intend to visit it this autumn.
on 3 July 2014
It is a very interesting story but I found that there was far too much trivial detail and the main part of the story about the design and building of the church didn't start until more than halfway through the book