Reviewed by: Jane Garnett Author: Jenny Uglow Publisher: Faber and Faber Price (RRP): £20
Traces of Sarah Losh’s life are vivid but fragmentary. A cultivated, independent member of an intellectual and philanthropic family, who expressed strong opinions and (until her sister’s death) dressed “gaily and expensively”, she wrote poetry and journals, most of which she subsequently destroyed.
Even her Cumbrian family house, which she remodelled, fell into semi- decay in the early 20th century, its contents having already been dispersed. All that remains of her confidence, her sense of colour, her vision of the cosmos, lies in the church that she built – St Mary’s in Wreay, Cumbria – and her monument to her beloved sister. Both are extraordinary.
The highly original design of the church, “early Saxon or modified Lombard” with a Byzantine apse, was entirely hers, and she supervised its construction on a daily basis. She produced clay mouldings from which the masons worked, and carved details of fossilised leaves in translucent alabaster. Water lilies, butterflies, coral, pine-fronds, raven, bee and owl: different arches evoke earth, sea, air. The stained glass incorporates broken pieces, including a 15th-century panel blasted out of a grand Parisian house during the 1830 revolution.
A sense of deep time, of Egyptian, Hindu, classical and Christian nature symbolism connecting with north-country geology and archaeology seems to have fired Losh’s imagination. The pinecone, emblem of reproduction, creation, enlightenment in various mythologies, was enigmatically at its heart. In the churchyard, in poignant contrast to the huge rough stone box which contains it, lies an elegant white marble statue of her sister – as drawn by Sarah on a beach in Naples in 1817 – looking down at a pinecone in her lap.
From such poetic glimpses of an inner life, Uglow has woven an evocative and beautifully illustrated story. She confronts biographical gaps through interweaving family and other history. Sometimes this leads to the reading of Losh’s experiences through the eyes of the more famous. But she establishes a rich cultural context which illuminates the often unsung sophistication of early 19th-century provincial England, of which Sarah was not untypical, as well as the ways in which she was remarkable. Her buildings were her most striking monument.
Jane Garnett is a fellow and tutor in modern history at Wadham College, Oxford