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Thinking Out Loud

Renaissance Woman

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 05, 2013

Sara (or Sarah) Losh would stand out in any age. In the age in which she lived (1785-1853) she was virtually unique. The grandchild and child of landed gentry in the Cumbrian region (northwestern England), Sara was reared in a home that valued education, curiosity, and independence. Her father, John (who inherited the land that was the cornerstone of their family fortune), and uncles, James (a barrister) and William (an industrialist and inventor) were leaders in their society. They encouraged Sara and her sister Katharine to cultivate an interest in mathematics, geology, engineering, archaeology, poetry, the arts, languages (modern and ancient), and politics.

Though both Sara and Katharine were heralded as great beauties when they entered society in Carlisle (and portraits of Sara are consistent with this view), neither married. Both were involved throughout their lives in a wide range of activities. Their Uncle James, who was a close friend of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and extraordinary political thinkers of the time, introduced them also to many of the leading lights of literature and radical politics. But Sara emerged in this male-dominated society as a figure of singular originality and brilliance.

Henry Lonsdale, the nineteenth-century author, compared her intellect to that of novelist and translator George Eliot. More recently Simon Jenkins, the well-known English columnist for the Sunday Times (London) and author of one of my favorite books, ("England's Thousand Best Churches") describes Sara Losh as "a genius, a Charlotte Bronte of wood and stone." What Sara did that was so exceptional was to translate her own wide-ranging interests and transmute her own profound personal grief into building projects that stand to this day as among the most wondrous small masterpieces in the world.

Recently Sara's story has been told by Jenny Uglow, a fine historian who brings her skills as a "group biographer" to bear on Sara's life, illuminating a family and circle even more than an individual, in her book, "The Pinecone" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). The title of the biography relates directly to Sara's crowning achievement, the construction of the small gem for which she is remembered chiefly today, St. Mary's Church in the village of Wreay, the Cumbrian village where Sara and her family lived, about five miles south of Carlisle, England.

St. Mary's Church, which was built between 1840 and 1842 was entirely Sara's project. This astonishingly independent woman volunteered to provide the land and funds to replace the crumbling village church provided, "I should be left unrestricted as to the mode of building it." The village elders (The Twelve Men or Wreay) gave their permission. Sara's relationship to this body was ironic in that as the region's major landowner her father had chaired the Twelve Men, and his heir would naturally have succeeded him; but Sara (his heir) could not even become a member of the body let alone its leader because of her gender, though after her father's death she remained throughout her life the largest landholder in the region and its primary benefactor.

Sara's interest in architecture had been awakened while she and her sister Katharine were on a grand tour of Europe in 1815, especially during their visit to Italy. And smaller building projects offered opportunities for Sara to express her ideas in her village. But when she turned to the design of St. Mary's everything came together, her love of simple, clean architectural lines led her to design a Roman basilica with a rectangular nave and a semicircular apse, a design she felt reflected the beauty and simplicity of early Christian liturgical architecture. Her design ran directly counter to the fashion of the age for English Gothic Revival and anticipated by some fifty years the Arts and Crafts movement.

Sara's grief and her interests intertwined in the ornamentation of the structure. Sara's world had been shaken in 1833 by the death of her beloved Uncle James, but even more so by the death of her sister Katharine in 1835, a loss from which she seemed never fully to recover. St. Mary's Church is richly adorned with symbols of eternity, resurrection and regeneration, creation and fertility, overwhelmingly drawn from nature: pinecones (lots and lots of pinecones) and pomegranates, a chrysalis and butterfly, lotus and other flowers, acorns and bees. The church has been described as a reflection "in stone and wood" of "the love of God for all creation." But it is not only a celebration of the contemporary natural world—it is one of past worlds, too. Ammonites and other fossil finds can be seen next to birds Sara would have seen in the surrounding woods and fields. While the baptismal font has a mirrored lid that gives the impression that living water lilies are floating in its waters and the lectern is upheld by a stork with neck and wings outstretched, the pulpit is carved from a bog oak to resemble a huge fossilized tree trunk. Past and present fuse in a symphony of symbols.

Some have seen paganism at work in Sara's design. It is far more likely that we find a deep faith, suspicious of doctrinaire dogmatism, lit by natural and historical curiosity in a region abounding in Roman and Celtic antiquities, and in a time when people made revolutionary scientific discoveries at quarries and in laboratories every day.

Among the most poignant symbols in St. Mary's are the arrows, which are said to memorialize the death of Sara's friend, Major William Thain, who was killed in the Afghan War in 1842. But among the most poignant facts emerging from Sara's life is the loss of her writings.

Sara herself destroyed most of her letters and papers, but she kept a journal chronicling the European trip she and Katharine took together in 1815, a trip that fired her imagination and led to her architectural endeavors. This journal, in seven manuscript volumes, went missing after a family member loaned it to a friend in the 1870s. But perhaps even this is fitting. The lasting testaments to this Renaissance woman who not only designed but personally supervised her buildings, and who took turns carving the stone of her monuments, are the structures themselves. There we can read her character and see her imagination and brilliance fully at play.

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