Jenny Uglow is one of my favourite writers of non-fiction. She has a quiet, calm style that conjures up the world of her subjects. Her new book, The Pinecone, is the story of Sarah Losh, a woman of independent fortune who was an architect in an age when a woman was expected to be dedicated to hearth & home.
The Losh family made their fortune in industry. Sarah’s father, John, owned a factory making alkali to use in glass making. He & his partners discovered how to make alkali at a competitive price compared to European sources. This was the foundation of the wealth that allowed Sarah to follow her own course in an age when the traditional path of a young woman in the early 19th century involved marriage & family.
Sarah’s family lived in Wreay, near Carlisle in Cumbria. They were a politically radical family, acquainted with Wordsworth & Coleridge, religious dissenters with a strong social conscience. Sarah & her sister, Katharine, were very close. Neither married, although they spent their youth attending balls & receptions. Their brother, Joseph, was mentally disabled & so their father left his estate to his daughters equally. Sarah & Katherine were unusual because they were completely contented in each others company. Sarah loved reading & study & was an antiquarian with an intense interest in the past. The sisters travelled in Europe & Sarah was fascinated by the buildings of Italy & France, storing up ideas for her future work.
They both took an interest in their estate workers & the local village. They played the role of Lady Bountiful but there was a real concern & genuine kindness in all they did. Theirs was a benevolent rule. When the local churchyard was full they gave an acre of their land as a cemetery for their own village, regardless of religious denomination. Sarah designed the chapel that was built there, adapting the plan of St Piran’s oratory, a Cornish chapel that had recently been uncovered by archaeologists.This awareness & passion for the past informed all Sarah’s building projects. She was also passionate about using local craftsmen & materials.
Sarah’s next project was much more sombre. Katharine died in 1835 & Sarah was overcome with grief. She designed a strange boxlike mausoleum, a place of quiet reflection. It’s described as both a refuge & a cell & was described at the time as having Druidic influences. The statue on the cover of the book sits in the mausoleum. It shows Katharine looking down at a pinecone on her lap. The pinecone is one of the central motifs of Sarah’s work. I had no idea of the complex symbolism of this object. It’s an ancient symbol of regeneration & fertility. It was also an expression of the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical pattern that describes the way the bracts of the pinecone are laid out. It’s found everywhere in nature from the pattern on a snail’s shell to the structure of DNA. Sarah was a mathematician & was fascinated by patterns & symbols.
The building for which Sarah is now remembered is the extraordinary church she built at Wreay. The church is the embodiment of all her reading on early church architecture & religious history. It was also informed by the controversies in the Church of her own day. The Oxford Movement was endeavouring to bring the Church of England closer to its historical roots & antiquarians were rediscovering the beauties of Norman & Romanesque architecture. Sarah’s design didn’t copy any particular style, it was her own.
Like a geologist demonstrating the strata of belief, she decorated the church with symbols that looked back to the earlier religions, myths and cults that lay buried beneath Christian imagery and ritual, as the wheat of Demeter and the grapes of Dionysus lay behind the bread and wine of the sacrament.
She used the lotus, an early symbol of creation used by the Egyptians. There were cockerels, snakes & the tortoise, all symbols of Hindu stories & classical myth. And there were pinecones, a symbol that was used in ancient Assyria, Babylon, Egypt & Greece. Early visitors to the church were probably most surprised by the lack of Christian imagery. The building itself was simple but the interior decoration was very much Sarah’s vision & completely individual.
The design & building of Sarah’s church is the heart of the book but there is so much else. The coming of the railways, the stories of Sarah’s wider family & their adventures in India & during the Afghan Wars. Above all, it’s the story of a remarkable woman who made the most of her opportunities to live a truly individual life. Sarah Losh lived her life in her own way & has left behind her church, a unique expression of her character. When she died in 1853, she was mourned by many. Trees were planted in her honour by the local weavers she’d helped in hard times & by the villagers who had benefited from her care.