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A Charlotte Brontë of wood and stone

8 September 2012

8:00 AM

8 September 2012

8:00 AM

Sarah Losh is not forgotten (as the subtitle of this book suggests) in her own village of Wreay (pronounced ‘Rear’), south east of Carlisle in Cumberland. The locals refer to ‘Miss Sarah’ as if she were still alive, rather as they speak about Lady Anne Clifford at Appleby. Anybody who has visited the village and seen the extraordinary church built in 1841-2 by Miss Losh at her own expense will know why. Travellers are met with the apparition of a small Roman basilica stranded on a village green, embellished with mind-blowing carvings. They are partly inspired by fossils, obscure natural history specimens and esoteric symbols.

The Losh graves in the churchyard are strikingly odd and personal too. They comprise naturalistic boulder-like slabs carved with shells, branches and palm trees. In one corner a large stone pinecone commemorates some pine seeds (and the sender) sent to Sarah Losh by a soldier friend, Major William Thein, massacred (with 16,000 others) by the Afghans on the North-West Frontier. A cyclopean or ‘Druidic’ mausoleum to Losh’s sister Katharine has an interior side-lit from little windows which illuminate the ‘pallid image’ of the deceased in white marble. In front is a full-scale variation of the Bewcastle Cross commemorating the Losh parents.

The architecture of the church shows a remarkable range of sources, illustrating the breadth of Sarah’s learning, and the whole ensemble is largely autobiographical — a ‘landscape of memory’ — recalling her foreign travels, family, loves and friendships. The weird sculpture was done by local boys: a builder, William Hindson, son of one of her tenants, and Robert Donald, her gardener. It reads like a 3-D version of a Regency lady’s album of accomplishments, with stylised flora and fauna. Losh modelled much of it herself in clay for the carvers to copy in an appropriately archaic manner. Other buildings around the village, including a little cemetery chapel, are expressive of the same original and informed mind and taste.

‘But why?’, one might ask. Jenny Uglow provides the answer in this thoroughly researched book which depicts Sarah Losh as a ‘Charlotte Brontë of wood and stone’, a product of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and picturesque aesthetics. We skip effortlessly between agricultural improvement in Cumberland, alkali production in Newcastle, church politics in Carlisle and the Reform Bill. Losh emerges as that very British type, a ‘conservative radical’. Wreay is her monument.

She was the eldest child of John Losh, a local landowner and successful industrialist seated at Woodside (now demolished) near Wreay. Her elder brother died young. Her younger brother was ‘backward’ and incapable, so on her parents’ death she became ‘squire’ of Wreay and heir to an industrial fortune from collieries, iron works and alkali soda production in Newcastle. She was well-educated, thanks to good tutoring from local clergymen as well as father and uncles, and was fluent in modern languages and Greek and Latin, well-travelled and well-read.

Her family were radicals, friends of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Foxite Whig politicians like the 11th Duke of Norfolk at Greystoke. From them she inherited a zest for ‘progress’: industrial development, social and political reform, Tractarian religion, anti-slavery, combined with a love of the past inspired by the Roman remains, monastic ruins, Saxon crosses and medieval pele towers of her native district. This was the inspiration for her activities as patron and architect. And indeed as a craftsman: she carved the alabaster font and lotus leaf candlesticks in her new church herself.

The immediate stimulus for her architectural activity was grief, caused by the death of her uncle and close ally, James Losh, in 1833 and her beloved only sister Katharine (with whom she had travelled to Italy) in 1835. ‘Sarah burst into years of creativity, as if trying to save something she had lost.’ She threw herself into the management of her estate and business interests and she ‘woke up and began to build’. She sought solace from her loneliness in architecture.

She spurned Puginian Gothic. She wanted something purer, simpler and more ‘rustic’, a favourite word of hers. She chose the style of the early-Christian Church in Italy which had analogies with the local Romanesque structures she admired. Above all, she was inspired by Thomas Hope’s Historical Essay on Architecture, post-humously published by Hope’s son in 1835. Her new church was to be ‘Lombardic’ (Hope’s phrase), then a rare and original choice.

She had no trouble in getting the village and its ruling council of ‘Twelve Men’ to agree. The minutes read: ‘Resolved unanimously that the kind proposal made by Miss Losh to rebuild the chapel at Wreay be accepted.’ Permission from the church authorities to ‘repair’ the old chapel was also forthcoming, though the bishop was initially taken aback by the plans. He gave way when she made it clear that she was going to pay for it herself (over £1,000). Without the cathedral authorities fully realising, she got them all to agree to do exactly what she wanted. An unusually fine summer in 1841 enabled the shell to rise rapidly, and by the time the snows of 1842 arrived the workmen were able to concentrate on the interior. The whole is a masterpiece of artisan craftsmanship as well as Sarah’s learning and sophisticated artistic tastes.

It is a riveting story, and Jenny Uglow makes the most of it, exploring the intellectual and social background to Losh’s unusual masterpiece. As is to be expected from the author of The Lunar Men (2002), she is especially good on the economic, industrial, literary and philosophical aspects. She fully explains the impetus for one of the most startling small masterpieces of 19th-century architecture in Britain, as well as bringing to life the admirable Miss Losh of Wreay.

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