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Wreay's woman of mystery

23 November 2012

William Whyte looks at Sarah Losh's legacy


Font at Wreay: it was carved in alabaster by Sarah Losh with the help of her cousin William Septimus

Font at Wreay: it was carved in alabaster by Sarah Losh with the help of her cousin William Septimus

The Pinecone: The story of Sarah Losh, forgotten Romantic heroine - antiquarian, architect and visionary
Jenny Uglow
Faber and Faber £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT517 )

MOST people, I suspect, turn to a history book for facts and to establish the truth. And most history books satisfy that demand, telling the reader who did what, when, and why. But there is another category of historical writing, one that demonstrates the pleasure to be found in ambiguity - in history's perhapses, might-have-beens, and maybes.

Jenny Uglow's latest book is a wonderful example of this genre, the story of a mysterious 19th-century church, just outside Carlisle, built by a still more mysterious woman. The church is little-known, but deserves to become more famous. A truly original design, it fuses Christian symbolism with Romantic idealism. It is garlanded with a profusion of flowers and fruit, animals and angels. There is a crocodile, a snake, a turtle, and a dragon; and in the baptistery - no one knows why - there is a single arrow lodged in the wall.

Sarah Losh, who designed, built, and paid for this remarkable church is an even more enigmatic subject. The brilliant daughter of a wealthy man, she was well-travelled and well-read. Inheriting a large estate, and never marrying, she possessed the sort of freedom that few other women obtained at the time. She was evidently witty. Visiting the Grande Chartreuse, she observed that the Carthusians spent half their day in church, never ate together, "live always on potatoes, and, ex-cept on Thursdays, are never permitted in interchange one single word. Whether or no such life might fit one for death, it would have the effect of reconciling one to it."

Yet Losh is all but lost to history. None of her papers or drawings survives, and what little we do know about her comes from a memoir written more than a decade after her death. Her motivations, her ideas, the symbolism that informed the design of her church - all of this has perished.

Seeking to fill in the gaps, this book covers a great deal of ground. We learn much - perhaps a little too much - about Sarah Losh's family, about 19th-century Cumbria, and about the scientific ideas of the day. It is a broad canvas, and there are times when Losh disappears almost totally.

But Uglow could not write badly if she tried, and the story is so intrinsically intriguing that one cannot help reading on. The church at Wreay and its creator will always be enigmatic. That, in the end, is their appeal. 

The Revd Dr William Whyte is  a Tutorial Fellow of St John's  College, Oxford, in Modern History, and Assistant Curate of Kidlington.

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