My wife and I have just enjoyed The Pinecone. The story of Sarah Losh, romantic, heroine, architect and visionary by Jenny Uglow, published by Faber and Faber. I recommend it to anyone interested in Cumbrian life and history of art and architecture as a detailed and highly readable biography of a very accomplished lady who lived in the Cumbrian village of Wreay near Carlisle and built there the amazing St. Mary’s Church.
It is nothing short of a ‘Wonder’ in the original sense of the word, popularised in the classical ancient world. She appears to me to have profoundly influenced culture in Britain and abroad and this book greatly helps contextualize her life work, I would say ‘grounds’ it but for its elevated nature. It appears to be a work that celebrates the wonders of God’s Creation from ages past through to modernity, reflecting Sarah’s considerable learning from poet /philosopher friends and travels in Britain, France and Italy and appears to anticipate the Arts and Crafts movement by decades, post-modernity by a century. Furthermore, the book leaves a resounding impression of her overall niceness, as well as her greatness. She improved a lot of lives in the course of her own, both during her own life and as her lasting legacy.
The book describes her upbringing in the early C19th midst an accomplishing family of enlightened industrialist philanthropists very much plugged-in to the exciting spirit of the times with its rapidly evolving understanding of the natural sciences, geology, biology, chemistry and physics, the latters’ application to the service of mankind through major industrial production in the northeast and to lesser extent in Carlisle, the adoption and expansion of steam in mechanized production and in the expansion of the railways. Her childhood and later formative experience was really very blessed, her grasp of languages gifted and her contact with important poets, thinkers, creative industrialists and art from ancient to modern profoundly impressive.
It’s really interesting to read of the family connection to Newton Arlosh on the Solway and of the commercial turbulence of the times with its occasional widespread swings in fortune, the booms in the textile industry and in expansion of weaving, dying and colour printing, the profitable work from home followed by the sudden market collapses and panicky runs on the banks, then re-employment through the new construction boom of the rail network. It’s amazing to think that for the first time, normal people could wear colourful clothes, up until then, only the preserve of nobility, royalty and clergy. Sarah witnessed, and her family was part of, so much change. The family fortunes and those of their friends were rather fundamentally entwined with the prosperity of the north of England and thus the rest of the country.
I clearly remember our first visit to his highly unusual and spectacular church as a magical experience. Though I was struck by the singular external features of the building with its unfamiliar shape, amazing carvings and gargoyles, all that in no way prepared my mind for the startling quality of the interior. Make sure that you are the first to open the door and you’ll experience primordial darkness being illuminated at your entrance. Combined with the richness of the interior that’s very heady.
A friend had taken us to Wreay and St. Ninian’s well in nearby Brisco among other interesting sites that featured holy springs / wells on one of our antiquarian adventures together. I saw so much there that now makes sense having read this well-researched book by Jenny Uglow. Jenny’s book goes a long way interpreting the imagery and yet none of the mystery of the place seems lost in the process. I urge you to visit for yourself and to read the book.
I also missed the significance of a great deal of what I saw and having read this book we will now return with better-informed eyes. When I viewed the carvings of beetles, butterflies, plants and fossils, I was impressed and put in mind of London’s great Natural History Museum. I didn’t know quite what to make of the monstrous gargoyles, winged turtles, serpents and dragon except that I liked them and was impressed by their eccentricity and forceful presence. They are the sort of grand features that you might expect to see on an ancient ‘lost temple’ in a tropical jungle somewhere! Sarah clearly enjoyed building this Wonder.
This building strikes me as one of Britain’s ‘collegiate chapels’ with lessons graven in bog oak, stone and plaster, paint and stained glass. How interesting it would have been to have sat in on the conversations at her dining table. The author explains that by embodying the principles that she, and the poet William Wordsworth held dear, those of purity, simplicity and rusticity she boldly rejected the Gothic and returned to the pluralistic origins of the early Church while grounding this in very local materials and workmanship. The heron lectern is very English. She created so much with her own hands; and employed local craftsmen and used local materials to create a work in praise of Creation, how ingenious is that! The building is informed by her amassed knowledge and full of allegory and symbolism of pre-Celtic nature coupled with images from recent geological scientific discovery. There’s something very post-modernist in this re-visitation of classical material within a modern framework, she dares to include images of ancient life forms that turned up in pursuit of the coal that powered industrial modernity as if to say “All creation is of God, who is Man to prescribe what God has done?” That’s my interpretation not Jenny’s.
While a good deal of this imagery is interpreted by Jenny, still many mysteries remain and I feel that layers of meaning, overlap like the scales of a pinecone and are yet to be uncovered, to my eyes at any rate. They are likely here in this book for you to read if you can see them. The symbolism of the pinecone is explored nicely on pages 213-214 and the extent of “buried religious connections” within the church listed as “Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Hindu, Buddhist — the strata of spiritual rather than geological time.” How well the author conveys the spiritual make-up of this building. I think it echoes the bold and then quite radical recognition of the truly ancient nature of creation and recreation. Brilliant!
Blessed as it was, Sarah’s life was not untouched by sorrows. There is something terribly tragic about her bereavements, the loss of her sister Katherine who was her closest companion and the loss of her beloved William were so deeply felt. William, the one man who might have become her husband sent Sarah a pinecone from Afghanistan, where he was killed a short time after.
Without sister or husband, she built her glorious church. As well as being courageous, Sarah was very modest. I agree with Jenny, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Sarah Losh is probably one of the most important non-famous people in British history. She deserves to be more widely celebrated, though she never courted fame. A spirit of enlightenment, her achievements would have been great coming from a man of her times, from a woman in those times they seem all the more remarkable as there were such restrictive expectations.
Her resounding message to us all through the ages to come, male and female might be “you can do it. We did. ”
No visit to Cumbria is complete without a stop at St. Mary’s, Wreay and perhaps a short prayer of thanks for the life and works of Sarah Losh.