One Christmas present was The Pinecone, Jenny Uglow’s biography of Sarah Losh, wealthyco-owner of prosperous chemical works on Tyneside and builder of a singular Romanesque-style church at Wreay , south of Carlisle, where she lived.Singular because nothing else like it is known in the period (1840s) and because Sarah was her own architect and designer as well as sculpting motifs for many decorative elements.It’s long been known as a Victorian oddity, albeit far more serious than that term implies. Solid yet not heavy, primitive but not naive, it looks a bit Arts-and-Crafts several decades avant la lettre. Pevsner, who needed to fit all architecture into a chronology of influence andinnovation, called it a crazy building despite being most impressive and amazingly forward-looking.
Rossetti, who visited Sarah’s cousin and heir in 1869, praised it as full of imaginative detail, beauty and originality – far better than work by current architects.While the semi-circular apse is an old but traditional form, seen for example at Hoarwithy a generation later, the emblems and symbolic details must be unique in Anglican churches, with lotus flowers, insects, fossils and pinecones in place of crosses and thorn crowns, seemingly in response to Payne Knight’s Symbolical Languageof Ancient Art & Mythology, or perhaps wholly devised by Sarah Losh.
Frustratingly, she and her heirs destroyed all personal papers, and there even appear to be no surviving letters from Sarah to the extensive Losh cousinage.Jenny Uglow fantasises that, somewhere, a tin trunk of correspsondence awaits discovery, but has been obliged to compose a biography with virtually nothing in the subject’s own voice.And sadly for someone with such unusual interests and talents, Wreay church is effectively Sarah’s only substantial achievement.The nearest comparison I can think of is the cemetery chapel at Compton in Surrey, designed with comparable symbolism by Mary Seton Watts, and created by villagers under her direction around 1900.