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September 7, 2012 10:39 pm
The Pinecone, by Jenny Uglow, Faber, RRP£20, 304 pages
It says something about the inequalities within the UK’s architectural profession that Sarah Losh (1786-1853) remains so little known beyond the bounds of academic specialism and local history. It would, of course, be a poor biography that promoted its subject simply by virtue of gender; what makes Losh such a deserving candidate for this new study by Jenny Uglow is not just her tenacity and spirited independence but the crowning achievement of her life’s work, the church of St Mary’s in the Cumbrian village of Wreay.
Constructed between 1841 and 1842, against the backdrop of an intensifying debate among scientists, philosophers and theologians over the origins of the universe, the building represents a bundle of contradictions: sacred and secular, local and exotic, progressive yet respectful of the past.
Losh’s unusual design, comprised of a Byzantine apse attached to a simple, box-like nave, is interpreted by Uglow as a rejection of the prevailing trend for neo-Gothic. And while her ideas were drawn from a variety of sources – classical, Egyptian and Middle Eastern – she used village craftsmen and vernacular materials to realise her vision. Inside, Losh’s imagination overflowed: bog oak lecterns in the form of an eagle and a stork, riotously colourful stained glass windows, a gourd- and vine-patterned doorframe – and lotus flower candlesticks that she carved herself in pink alabaster. A mysterious arrow stuck into the baptistery wall is thought to allude to the fate of William Thain, a local boy who died during the first Anglo-Afghan war (1839-1842).
Uglow’s biography could not have been more timely: St Mary’s underwent a major restoration in 2006, while plans to restore the mortuary chapel, also by Losh, were announced this summer. In Uglow’s account, the church represents the focal point of Losh’s life, and provides a backbone for the narrative.
Born into a family of wealthy industrialists, Sarah and her sister Katharine could afford to remain single, independent women. In this they were encouraged by their uncle James Losh, a radical thinker who counted Wordsworth, Coleridge and William Godwin among his acquaintances. Lives and themes intersect: there are references to Thomas Bewick and Elizabeth Gaskell (two of Uglow’s previous subjects), and the author demonstrates the fluid relationship between art and science.
Losh destroyed many of her papers, and her journals have been lost, so her voice comes in the form of earnest construction notes. Uglow pieces together an absorbing portrait, though emotions are sometimes overwrought: when describing Sarah’s response to Katharine’s death in 1835, for instance, Uglow resorts to quoting Jane Austen in mourning for her sister Cassandra. But that is a mere quibble. Like her subject, Uglow triumphs with quiet urgency, and her straightforward account of Losh’s early life swells into a passionate depiction of the church itself.
Throughout, Uglow weaves symbols across lives and time. The titular pinecone is noted in descriptions of the larch plantations surrounding Wreay that Losh would have known as a child; the pinecone motif, used extensively at St Mary’s, is analysed as a symbol of fertility and renewal; a churchyard tree, raised from a pinecone Thain sent home from Afghanistan shortly before his death, is remembered. And ultimately the pinecone’s complex form comes to represent architectural design, and the enigma of Losh herself.
Laura Battle is deputy editor of FT House & Home
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