Jim turned down a country road, parked the Mountain Goat Mercedes beside a playground where schoolchildren were having recess, pulled out a slip of paper, and read:
“In the village of Wreay, just above the Lake District, stands perhaps the most singular church in England, built in the early Victorian era by a most unusual landowner — the subject of this delightful book. Born into an old Cumbrian family and heiress to an industrial fortune, Sarah Losh was intelligent, highly educated, strong-willed, and passionate in her pursuits. She eschewed marriage to live with her sister and indulge in her own creative impulses, and her St. Mary’s Church is a masterpiece of architectural synthesis and symbolic carvings in stone that anticipated the Arts and Crafts movement by 50 years.”
As I listened to him, I looked out the window, saw the church across the road, and came to an incredible conclusion. This was the place I had read about years ago in Jenny Uglow’s The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine – Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary.
Our new friend Barbara had carried this clipping of the Daedalus Books catalog entry for The Pinecone all the way from New York, hoping that Jim could squeeze in a visit to Sarah Losh’s church. As usual, he didn’t disappoint.
Sarah was born on New Year’s Day 1786 at the Losh family estate, Woodside. Located on Waygates Road, a mile away from Wreay, the estate afforded picturesque views of the Cumberland fells and the Pennine mountain range that is the “backbone of England.” Her father, John, was a forward-thinking community leader, not only the head of the “Twelve Men” who looked out for Wreay and its residents, but also a successful entrepreneur who had founded an iron foundry in nearby Newcastle and an alkali works that produced the alkaline salts needed by glass manufacturers. Business boomed, the Loshes’ wealth increased, and Sarah and her sister, Katharine, became accomplished, wealthy women who came to own almost all of Wreay.
The unmarried sisters were inseparable. Together, they translated Latin and Greek; read Byron and Scott; studied history, architecture, geology and science; and traveled extensively. And then Katharine died in 1835. Sarah was inconsolable.
Suddenly, Sarah snapped out of it. She decided to “improve” Wreay’s church, which had been built around 1319, so that the villagers could more conveniently participate in services and hear sermons. As a generous benefactor, she offered to pay for all expenses, but on the condition that she could do exactly as she wanted. The Twelve Men allowed her to tear down the present church, divert the road to the west of the churchyard, rebuild the surrounding wall, and build a new church within 30 yards of the old structure.
Sarah started her project in 1840, enlisting several village craftsmen to help her. For the next two years, they immersed themselves in constructing a work of “great genius,” as it was later described by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite poet and artist.
Wanting to create a simple, striking church very different from anything else in Britain, Sarah decided to build a Romanesque structure out of yellow sandstone, circled with gargoyles. What set it apart was how imaginatively it was decorated, both inside and out.
It’s said that Sarah sent William Hindson, the young local stonemason, to Italy for a few months to improve his skills, but he could have received training as near as Carlisle. When he returned, he produced some amazing things. Three arched windows on the west side of the church are loaded with naturalistic images: A chrysalis resting on an oak leaf. Butterflies. Poppies. Lilies. Wheat. Nautilus fossils. Coral. Fir branches. A raven. A scarab. A bee. An owl. And pinecones, the symbol of eternal life.
Four Norman-style arches surround the front door. One of them is decorated with 25 stylized water lilies. Two giant pinecones are at either end of the arch.Enter the church, close the door, and notice the door latch is two overlapping pinecones, carved in wood. Sarah’s gardener was responsible for the carved arch around this door. It shows gourds being eaten by caterpillars.
With the help of her cousin, William Septimus, Sarah carved the octagonal alabaster font herself. Bordered by Norman zig-zags and Greek fluting, each of its 10 panels is adorned with something different: Ferns. Water lilies. Lotus flowers. Butterflies. Ears of wheat and barley. Dragonflies. Grapevines. Pomegranates. A dove with an olive leaf. The cover is made of silvered glass and alabaster lotus flowers.
Sarah also carved two lotus-shaped candlesticks out of pale rose alabaster. The lotus is an early symbol of creation and light; its petals represent the rays of the sun. They rest on an Italian green marble altar, supported by two brass eagles, with carvings of corn and grapes at the base. The apse is surrounded by 14 pillars carved with bats and other figures; the spaces between them are decorated with paintings of the emblems of the twelve Apostles, as well as lilies, passion flowers and acanthus.
The stained glass windows were made by William Wailes of Newcastle. Some are like a kaleidoscopic mosaic of green, red, yellow and mauve glass. Others are patterned with circles, ovals and St. Andrew’s Crosses. Still more are based on fossilized creatures and plants found in the coal mines of Cumberland and Northumberland.
A procession of carved wooden angels sit on a shelf decorated with oak leaves and acorns, grasshoppers, flowers and grapes. Separated by palms, they carry palm branches, lilies and a banner of good news. Two larger angels flank the north and south of the apse.
Pinecones may be the dominant motif of Sarah’s church, but she also instructed John Scott, the lectern carver, to create several iron arrows, a symbol of death. You’ll find them on the doors of the west façade. More arrows form a railing around the well by the door. And one arrow appears to have been shot into the inside wall by the baptistery.
Sarah’s extraordinary creativity can also be found in a Runic cross that she created in her parents’ memory. Her model was Cumberland’s Bewcastle Cross, standing 14 feet high and carved in the late 7th or early 8th century and decorated with runes, interlaced knots and scrolls, twisting vines and figures, like a falconer with his bird.
In the mausoleum, Sarah had a white marble statue carved of Katharine, based on a sketch that Sarah had made of her on the beach at Naples in 1817. She holds a pinecone in her hand.
Sarah died in 1853 and is buried next to Katharine in the Wreay churchyard. Adorned with carvings of scallop shells and plants, the gravestone is inscribed, “In vita divisae, in morte conjunctae” — “Parted in life, in death united.”
Uglow, a native of Cumbria, served as a historical consultant for the film, Miss Potter, as well as BBC serials like North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel based in the industrial North of England. Besides writing biographies of Gaskell and other figures from English history, she has also published several interesting books, such as The Lunar Men: The Friends who Made the Future; Words & Pictures: Writers, Artists and a Peculiarly British Tradition; A Little History of British Gardening; and Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick. Her latest book is In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815. To hear her talk about Sarah Losh that she gave at the 2013 Charleston Festival, an annual literary event, click here; her remarks begin at 21:18.