Against Michelangelo

Rosemary Hill

  • The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow
    Faber, 332 pp, £20.00, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 571 26950 1

Not much is known about Sarah Losh and those biographical facts which have survived offer little more than a misleading series of clichés. Born on New Year’s Day, 1786, into a solid and prosperous county family in Cumbria, Sarah, or Sara as she first called herself, was the eldest of three surviving children. Wealthy, intelligent and good looking, she made her debut at the age of 18 at a ball in Carlisle where, family tradition had it, she was the belle of the evening. A drawing of her some years later shows an intelligent, conventionally pretty face, the hair piled up behind a centre parting, large eyes, small chin, a nose sharpening into middle age.

Having attended her fair share of assemblies, balls and county events without acquiring a husband, Losh inherited her father’s estates and appears gradually to turn from Regency beauty into a Victorian spinster of the redoubtable sort. Having become in effect the squire of Wreay, the village where she had grown up and where the family owned much of the land, she was a benign despot, a friend to the poor and a familiar figure in a black bonnet and shawl which she wore over a plain merino wool gown. The benignity was reinforced with a certain determination in getting her own way that made parish councillors occasionally quail. When she died in 1853 the local weavers planted a tree on the village green in her memory, ‘to convey an expression of their gratitude for the many gifts and favours that they had received from her’. Otherwise, as Nikolaus Pevsner noted in 1967, she was soon ‘except strictly locally, entirely forgotten’. That Pevsner should have regretted this fact and wanted to know more, is an indication of how different, peculiar and elusive the story of Losh’s life is from the scant biographical outline which Jenny Uglow has undertaken, with courage and considerable success, to try and fill in.

What caught Pevsner’s eye, as it catches the eye of almost everyone who finds themselves in Wreay, was the parish church of St Mary, which stands in the centre of the village opposite the green. Small and built of local stone, its oddness dawns only slowly. The use of the Lombardic style – which Pevsner noted as ‘original’ for the early 1840s – may not strike the non-specialist as particularly remarkable, but a large stone tortoise, protruding like a gargoyle from under the eaves, certainly will. A tour of the building reveals that the tortoise’s companions include a snake, a crocodile, a dragon and a turtle with wings. They are in fact air vents. Big, looming and somewhat ungainly, they were clearly not carved from life. In this they are much more like the gargoyles and paterae of medieval buildings than the refined and miniaturised details characteristic of the early Victorian gothic revival. Other carvings surround the door and windows. They include flower-heads, butterflies, human heads, shells, fossils and insects. An owl and a scarab are among the images that gesture towards iconographies other than the Christian.

Inside, the dream-like sensation of being in a place at once familiar yet oddly re-ordered continues with an architecture that speaks an ancient language with a curiously individual intonation. If its precise meaning is hard to catch, there is no doubt that it has one. St Mary’s is an English parish church, complete with altar, lectern and richly coloured stained glass, but the marble altar with its eagle supporters has a pagan look, a lectern, carved out of bog oak, takes the form of a stork arching upwards and seeming to writhe out of the wood, while the stained glass is a kaleidoscope of fragments patched here and there into pictures as if someone had taken a Victorian church and shaken it up like a snow globe, letting the pieces drift slowly down where they would. The design of the church, like the savagely carved grave slabs beside it and the mausoleum beyond, within whose rough and massive walls the figure of a woman, carved in white marble, contemplates a pinecone, is the work of Sarah Losh.

Losh, who destroyed many of her papers herself and specified in a long and detailed will that ‘my funeral … must be private & inexpensive as possible,’ clearly intended that her buildings, of which the church and mausoleum are the most significant to survive, should be her memorial and that their meaning was to be read in their fabric. The decades after Losh’s death were a low point for English biography, in which lives of ‘great men’ dominated a mostly barren field. Nevertheless, in 1873 Losh’s much younger friend, a Carlisle doctor called Henry Lonsdale, who had known her in the last years of her life, included an account of her in the fourth volume of his Worthies of Cumberland. It was discreet and tantalisingly brief, but not pious. For his researches Lonsdale made use of seven volumes of Losh’s travel journals. Their whereabouts after that are unknown. All that remains beside his published account are his copies of parts of the journals, notes made by the vicar of Wreay, some papers in the Carlisle Record Office and the diaries of Losh’s uncle, James. For the modern biographer it is slim pickings, and Uglow takes the only possible course, which is to build up the background and the context in the hope that they will describe an outline in the foreground, a space that will suggest what Losh was like and what she may have meant by her creations.

This works well, not least because the background is in itself a subject of considerable interest. The North Country of the later 18th century was not, in any limited sense, provincial. If anything, its remoteness from the capital seems to have encouraged intellectual independence and a willingness to experiment among people like the Loshes who took ideas seriously and were inclined towards radicalism. Sarah’s father John, born in 1757, was the eldest of four remarkable brothers. Their wealth came partly from land and later from the alkali works the family developed at the Walker colliery. The extended network of cousins and relatives by marriage (a number of whom were the same people, intermarriage being far from uncommon), spread wide that web of family ‘connexion’ which was the essence of county society. Those drawn into it by friendship included Wordsworth, who first met James Losh when they took part in an inquiry into the mutiny on the Bounty in an attempt to exonerate Fletcher Christian, whom both men had known as a boy in Cockermouth. James, who became a Unitarian and a republican while at Cambridge and consequently gave up his original plan of a career in the Church, also knew William Godwin and Coleridge. George, the only one of the brothers whose portrait survives, has a look of the latter about him with his long hair and slightly abstracted gaze. All the brothers travelled widely and spoke and read several languages. When they were at home they entertained generously and among the regular guests at Woodside while Sarah was growing up was William Paley, the archdeacon whose most influential work, Natural Theology, published in 1802, propounded the argument from design that draws the analogy between God and the ingenious watchmaker.

If it was high-minded the conversation at the Losh dinner table was anything but dry and earnest. Paley was remembered as one who ‘never failed as a trencherman’ and debates were liberally oiled with brandy and, in the case of another popular guest, the dean Isaac Milner, pepped up with opiates. These he apparently took for a heart condition but they were felt by the curate of Wreay, William Gaskin, to give him an unfair intellectual advantage, for by two in the morning Gaskin complained that his own liberal intake of brandy was ‘not so potent in argument as the Dean’s opium’. While the hierarchy of land, family and the professions meant that this was scarcely a classless society, it was one in which considerable social mobility was possible. Milner had been apprenticed to a weaver as a boy but an older brother paid for him to go to school, from where he went on to Cambridge, becoming president of Queens’ College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Joseph Carlyle, the local clergyman who baptised Sarah, also went on to Cambridge as professor of Arabic, having learned the language from an Arab friend. Eccentricity was properly appreciated. Samuel Goodenough, bishop of Carlisle and the last incumbent to wear powdered wigs, had three of them, graded according the formality of the occasion and known fondly in the family as ‘Highty, Tighty and Scrub’.

Thus Woodside in Losh’s childhood was a conspectus of one of the most socially and intellectually dynamic periods in English history and, as she grew up, she was encouraged to take advantage of it. She had two younger brothers, one who died soon after birth and Joseph, ‘poor Joe’ as he became known, who suffered some kind of mental disability that meant he would never be able to take on his father’s role. In a milieu where Mary Wollstonecraft’s name was spoken with admiration a daughter would no doubt have been encouraged. In this case she was apparently brought up to fill the place of the missing male heir and received a ‘wonderful, varied and advanced’ education. She was also impressively clever. The standard of achievement in the family as a whole suggests that the stories of her brilliance were due to more than her uncles’ partiality. James, who took a close interest in supervising her studies, noted that she ‘trespassed rather closely upon the heels of her teachers’ in mathematics, music, Italian, French and especially the classics. For the latter she was taught by Gaskin, who set the bar high:

You should be able to construe the Greek testament … at sight … read any easy prose Greek author, as Xenophon, Lucian, Herodotus and also Homer … then all the usual common Latin schoolbooks … to read at sight Virgil, Horace, Caesar’s Commentaries … you should be able to write pretty correctly Latin prose – and a Greek play or two should be added.

It was not, perhaps, surprising that the local marriage market of hunt balls and Carlisle assemblies should have failed to furnish either Losh or her sister Katharine, the younger by two years, with a beau who could keep up with them or hold out the prospect of a life as stimulating as that which they enjoyed at home. While Katharine was remembered as less brilliant than Sarah, she was agreed to be equally pretty, ‘hearty and vivacious’ and more amenable. So the two sisters, a Cumbrian sense and sensibility, grew up to be companions to each other. After their mother’s early death in 1799, they seem to have become inseparable and too self-sufficient perhaps to feel the need of husbands.

The earliest of the rare occasions on which Losh’s own voice can be heard comes much later, in the extracts copied by Lonsdale from her travel journals. They record her impressions of Italy, where she went with Katharine in 1817 at the age of 31. For all their adult life the Continent had been closed by war; now the sisters joined a flood of English tourists pouring into France and Italy. In Rome, Losh found much to enjoy but she cast a sceptical eye over Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. She thought it strained for effect and that the imagery of death and suffering was done in bad faith, intended to excite feelings the artist himself did not share, a mere ‘sporting with the fear and the credulity of the people’. It is an interesting objection, one that betrays the anti-popery of a Georgian gentlewoman, but goes beyond it. What Losh preferred, in Guido Reni’s Aurora, for example, which she had just seen, was the move away from the literal to the symbolic. Painting could not, she wrote, portray ‘the things of a future existence’. Artists should not try ‘to fix the clouds and embody the sunrise’ but rather seize on that ‘which creates in the mind analogous sensations’.

Art should therefore be the true, but not the literal expression of an artist’s experience. It was the Romantic view, Wordsworth’s something ‘far more deeply interfused’. Losh’s ‘analogous sensations’ echo Goethe’s ‘elective affinities’ while also recalling the chemical theory of attraction from which he drew the phrase. Indeed there had been as much chemistry as poetry in her education at a time when such boundaries were still fluid and Humphry Davy was published in the same magazine as Keats. Losh met Davy through her Uncle James and went to his lectures in London; in Wreay the guests at her father’s dinner table included the Scottish mathematician and chemist John Leslie, whose Experimental Enquiries into the Nature and Properties of Heat of 1804, was of more than academic interest to the Losh brothers as they developed new processes for their alkali works. Leslie was also known to appeal to ‘young people’, whom he frequently entertained with pockets full of snails and ‘a splendid electrical machine of the newest and most approved construction … which he was always ready to explain’.

By the time the sisters returned from their travels they would have been seen as confirmed spinsters on the threshold of middle age. Their father had died in 1814, leaving his estate equally divided between his daughters, who continued to live at Woodside, enjoying considerable personal and financial independence, while Joe was cared for elsewhere. With such an active and well-stocked mind, Losh must have been casting about for the best way to employ it. Despite her education, her means and the enlightened views of her uncles, the universities and professions were closed to her. Even in Wreay as a substantial land owner she could not take her father’s place on the council known as the Twelve Men, which regulated local politics. She turned instead to architecture, a discipline in which art and science combine, but which might seem at first sight an unlikely choice for a woman. Architecture in late Georgian England, however, was in a fluid state. Not yet an organised profession, training, if it existed at all, tended to be informal and closer to apprenticeship. Even for those who took that route the long years of war and invasion scares had deterred patrons, limiting the opportunities of all but the most established architects.

There was therefore something of a missing generation and the gap was partly filled by antiquaries who served the growing taste for the vernacular, the Picturesque and the Gothic architecture that formed the backdrop to many of Scott’s most popular novels. Antiquaries excavated and documented medieval buildings, published their findings, often in attractively illustrated volumes as well as longer, less attractive but influential articles, and not infrequently tried their hand at small-scale building. It was in architectural antiquarianism that Losh found scope for her impressive talents. Even here she was constrained. She could not, like her father and Uncle James, become a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, but that was ceasing to matter so much. Antiquarianism has a long history, but the last decades of the 18th century saw it blossom into a sort of national passion. More people and people of more types took up the study of the past and as the medieval became more popular than the classical, so antiquarianism became open to those excluded from conventional academic activities. The gentlemen of the Society of Antiquaries were elbowed aside by impoverished curates, Roman Catholics, autodidacts and, occasionally, women, who began digging up curiosities, dredging lakes for lost armour, writing down folk ballads, and working out the age of their parish church from the window tracery.

It was a more active engagement with the past than previous generations had experienced and it reflected an increased sense of history as a process subject to violent rupture. As the Norfolk antiquary, botanist and banker Dawson Turner, who was travelling in France while the Loshes were in Italy, put it, ‘the French revolution may well be compared to an earthquake: it swallowed up every thing, ingulphing some so deep that they are lost for ever, but leaving others, like hidden treasures, buried near the surface of the soil, whence accident and labour are daily bringing them to light.’ It was both a simile and a literal truth. There was a brisk trade in ‘salvaged’ antiquities, art, stained glass and carved wood, shaken loose by war and revolution from churches and private houses on the Continent, and antiquaries on both sides of the Channel were excavating energetically. At the same time not only history but also the deep past was being rearranged. As the earth gave up its secrets historic time was straining the seams of known chronology. The generally accepted calculation by Archbishop Ussher, based on biblical reckoning, that creation took place on 22 October 4004 BC (a Saturday) offered an increasingly inadequate time span. Uglow is particularly good on the influence on popular culture of geology, of news of the fossils that appeared as the new railways were cut and the mines, including those from which the Loshes’ wealth in part derived, were dug.

Disraeli’s Lady Constance in Tancred was perhaps more typical than the intellectually gifted Losh in forming the general impression that ‘first there was nothing, then there was something; then, I forget the next, I think there were shells, then fishes; then we came … everything is proved; by geology you know.’ For the more thoughtful the possibilities opened up by excavations, antiquarian and industrial, offered new understandings of humanity’s place in space and time, views which later found expression in Losh’s church. Her first ventures, with Katharine, were, however, more tentative. The sisters began with the improvement of their own home, Woodside, where the additions, now lost, seem to have been in the style of the Olden Times, popularised by Walter Scott’s Abbotsford. Then there was a Tudoresque village school and a schoolmaster’s house in the Pompeian style. Uglow is more surprised than she need be by this last, for the excavations at Pompeii, which the Loshes had visited, had been inspiring ‘Etruscan’ decorative schemes for some decades.

There were several more buildings before two crises, one minor, one catastrophic propelled Losh from antiquarian experiment into her remarkable and original creation. In 1835, Katharine died, it seems unexpectedly. Without her sister Losh must have been bereft. Uglow takes a rare biographical liberty at this point by quoting Cassandra Austen’s account of her feelings at Jane’s death. This is effective not only in suggesting what Losh’s experience must have been, but in gesturing towards the importance of female attachments, between friends as well as sisters, in the 19th century, relationships often overlooked or undervalued but which must have been the motive power behind many ventures, including St Mary’s, Wreay. The church was conceived in the aftermath of Losh’s bereavement and must surely be read as a response to it.

By the end of the 1830s the existing village church, much altered from its medieval beginnings, had become severely dilapidated and the need for repair was urgent. Losh made the building committee a non-negotiable offer. She wrote saying that she would pay for a completely new church on a different site, ‘on condition that I should be left unrestricted as to the mode of building it’. Her mode of building began with an excavation of the old church and, it would seem, a thoughtful study of pre-Reformation architecture before fixing on the style she called ‘early Saxon or modified Lombard’. It proceeded with a mixture of practicality and metaphysics, arranging drainage and planning the decoration. As well as looking back in time and across to the Continent for her inspiration she also made use of local materials, stone and wood and local craftsmen, especially the carver William Hindson, who worked both for her and with her – Losh took on some of the carving herself, working the alabaster font on whose mirrored lid a lotus flower rises amid scattered petals.

In the scheme as a whole she was clearly determined to avoid Michelangelo’s mistake. The pinecones and pomegranates, arrows, angels and fragments of recovered medieval glass are there not to represent the things of the next world, but to arouse analogous sensations. They point the observer towards ideas of creation in the fullest and widest sense. There are symbols from many religions including the Christian, but there is no crucifix, no literal image of death or suffering. At the apsidal east end, the climax of the iconographic programme is not Christ’s resurrection but a group of small windows of cut alabaster depicting fossil ferns found in the Walker mines, embodying the sunrise as the dawn of creation.

It is tempting to play the art historian’s game of spot-the-source. While some images come directly from classical mythology, others are more obscure and many, including the lotus and the pinecone, have strong sexual connotations. It seems likely that Losh was well aware of this and had used Richard Payne Knight’s An Inquiry into the Symbolical Language of Ancient Art and Mythology of 1818. She knew Lord Brougham’s chapel nearby, which incorporated vast amounts of salvaged Continental carvings and she would have seen the curious woodwork commissioned at Durham Cathedral in the 17th century by Bishop Cosin, in which the architecture of Christendom appears to grow up out of the classical past. But her church is sui generis. The images are there to evoke thoughts and emotions and they speak of cycles of time, regeneration and rebirth. Even the most typically antiquarian touch, the incorporation of glass fragments, salvaged by her young cousin William from the havoc of the July Revolution in Paris, is presented not as a trophy but blended back into the whole, symbolic, if anything, of reconciliation.

What exactly Losh came to believe about God we cannot know. Her uncle recalled talking to her shortly after her father died when she spoke with ‘great candour and energy’ about ‘those doubts and anxieties which are but too common in minds of much sensibility and deep research’. On the eve of Darwinism, however, it was possible still to hold science and faith together. The decades after her death saw the Church of England losing the evolution debate while it agonised over liturgical minutiae, disciplining priests for officiating from the wrong side of the altar. As Ruskin and then Morris developed theories about the crafts and workmanship, the heterodox church at Wreay, which had so remarkably anticipated them, slipped into obscurity. It took another century for Losh’s profound, symbolic vision of the mysteries of time and creation to find its proper place in history and art.