Jenny Uglow on pre-Victorian pioneer Sarah Losh, Marlborough Festival of Literature

27 Sep

In a little corner in Cumbria, a nineteenth century church stands testament to the vision of one of the UK’s first woman architects, Sarah Losh.

With virtually none of the usual Christian iconography, it is instead decorated with much older symbols of fertility and is inspired by the burgeoning pre-Victorian interest in geology and palaeontology.

The story of Sarah Losh, The Pinecone, is not only of an incredible women who became an architect about two hundred years before feminism, but also of family, history and giving others a chance.

Jenny Unglow gave a throughly engaging account at the Marlborough Literature Festival of a well-travelled women who didn’t marry, preferring the company of her sister, keeping her family name and being in control of her estate.

After adapting her own family home and other projects in and around her village of Wreay near Cumbria, she rebuilt St Mary’s Church after it had fallen into disrepair.

Jenny suggests that the bishop, arriving for the consecration, must have been ‘stunned’ by the severe outlook, the ‘heathen’ symbols and the lack of death and sacrifice that so often characterises Anglican churches.

My guess is that after the heart-breaking death of her beloved sister Katherine, and commissioning a marble statue of her in the family mausoleum, perhaps Sarah was all grief-ed out.

I liked that Sarah utilised local talent to build her church – such as the sculptor who carved the beautiful eagle and stork lecterns, ‘the cripple’ John Scott of Dalston; or a then unknown William Wailes to create the windows before going on to become a celebrated stain glass craftsman. She also recycled materials – the pews were made of storm-felled local walnut and oak.

Her work is an insight into the modern world in which she moved. After her mother died she was raised by her uncle, James Losh, who was friends with such radicals as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. So her architecture was at once as new as it could get – one of the first Byzantine style churches – and old, with dinosaur gargoyles, fossils and pinecones, an age old symbol of fertility and regeneration. The bases of the lecterns were made of bog oak, which she had specially raised from local peat bogs after lying there for thousands of years.

Yes, she was born into privilege and was lucky to move in the most educated and enlightened circles, but even so this is an inspiring story that should appeal to all – women and men – who wonder if they can follow their dream.

Written by Louisa Davison.

If you are interested in more pioneering women, read here about Mary Wollstonecraft.

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