The Pinecone: The story of Sarah Losh, forgotten
Romantic heroine - antiquarian, architect and visionary
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.