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.

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