The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine—Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary
by Jenny Uglow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 332 pp., $28.00
In the county of Cumbria far to the north of England, a land of ancient feudings alongside the Scottish border, stands a small stone village church built in 1842. So remarkable is this building that it stops in their tracks almost everyone who sees it. The Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti after visiting St. Mary’s church at Wreay in 1869 described it as a real work of genius, “a most beautiful thing.” A century on, the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner judged it “a most impressive and in some ways amazingly forward-pointing building,” astonishing in its originality.
A contemporary British architectural authority, Sir Simon Jenkins, Chairman of the National Trust, includes St. Mary’s in his book England’s Thousand Best Churches, calling it “one of the most eccentric small churches in England,” a building which “but for the severity of its stone, might be on a hillside in northern Italy.” The chosen architectural style was Italian Romanesque with Lombardic rounded arches, surprising in an England in which Puginesque soaring spires were coming into fashion. The interior of the church was made rich and strange with carvings of flowers, butterflies, pomegranates, and the symbolic pinecones that give Jenny Uglow’s book its title. Even more unusual at a time when women were not trained in architecture is the fact that St. Mary’s was created from inception to completion by a local woman, Sarah Losh.
Losh came from a wealthy Cumbrian family of landowners and entrepreneurs. She was particularly fortunate in the Losh family’s local prestige and financial resources. St. Mary’s church might well have been less extravagantly original if Miss Losh had not been able to call the tune.
The expansive spirit of the time also had its impact on her ambitious, self-confident creativity. Sarah Losh was born in 1786. She grew up in a period of transition and excitement as the dawning of Romanticism coincided with the challenge of industrial expansion. Jenny Uglow’s great skill as a biographer is that of moving easily between the personal narrative and broader social background. She lucidly portrays the ever-widening horizons and the inherent conflicts of early-nineteenth-century England in her empathetic, scholarly, deeply absorbing book.
In explaining the genesis of St. Mary’s church we need to first see Losh in her local setting, growing up in the small village of Wreay, five miles south of what had originally been the ancient, remote walled city of Carlisle. The village community was a very small one, recorded in a 1794 History of Cumberland as containing “twenty-one families, sixty men and fifty-four women.” Sarah’s father, John Losh, was involved as his forebears had been in the day-to-day running of the village as head of the ruling body, the Twelve Men. Losh herself had a strong feeling for Wreay. Her designs for the new church and for other village buildings show …