Monday 9 July 2018
Sara Losh, described by Simon Jenkins as “a Charlotte Bronte of wood and stone”, was born at Woodside, a large country house in the Parish of Wreay near Carlisle, and was baptised on 6 January 1786. She was the oldest of the four children of John Losh and his wife Isabella Bonner of Callerton Hall, Northumberland. Sara had two brothers and a sister Katherine. Sadly, her brother John died in infancy whilst her youngest sibling Joseph, had a form of mental disability.
The Losh family had lived at Woodside since the 16th century and had risen from humble beginnings as yeoman farmers to the position of respected landowners and industrialists. Consequently, Sara and Katherine inherited considerable wealth on their father's death in 1814, including the Woodside Estates and the Walker Alkali Plant on Tyneside, managed by their uncle William. It seems that Sara and her sister were particularly close, travelling with their aunt and uncle to Italy, France and Germany in 1814 and 1817. Later accounts suggest that Sara was calm, dignified and beautiful whilst Katherine was lively and hearty. Though quite different in character, they were nevertheless the closest of friends. For that reason, Sara was deeply affected when Katherine passed away at the age of 47.
Neither of the sisters had married, perhaps wishing to retain their independence, although there is evidence to suggest that one of them may have been romantically attached to a former schoolfellow, Major William Thain, who was killed by a poisoned arrow whilst fighting in the First Afghan War in January 1842.
Most of the information we have about Sara's life and architectural work is to be found in the fourth volume of a biographical series entitled The Worthies of Cumberland, written by Dr Henry Lonsdale. It is here that we learn that she spoke French and Italian fluently, having been educated in Wreay, London and Bath. She is also said to have been able to translate Latin ex tempore.
Most of her eighteen architectural projects, including three wells, two village schools and several houses, were built in Wreay at her own expense and were inspired by buildings she had seen during her travels around Britain and Europe. In 1830, she commissioned a stylised version of the late seventh century Bewcastle Cross as a memorial to her parents, whilst her schoolmaster's cottage resembles a Pompeian villa. However, her most famous creation is undoubtedly the Church of St Mary, constructed in memory of her late sister, Katherine.
There has been a parish church at Wreay since at least the early part of the fourteenth century, although the church that Sara knew was probably post-Reformation in date, and was seriously dilapidated by the mid-19th century. It is therefore unsurprising that the Bishop and Chancellor of the Diocese of Carlisle were pleased to accept her offer to donate a site and pay for the construction of a new church. Even her condition that she should be allowed to design the church as she saw fit did not deter the authorities, and faculty was duly granted in May 1841. The church was dedicated eighteen months later in December 1842, having cost the sum of Â£1,088 10s 4d.
St Mary's church
Although words like unique are often rather overused, St Mary's Church is truly one-of-a-kind. It was essentially built on the plan of a Roman basilica with a short aisleless nave and an apsidal east end. The style is somewhere between Early Christian and Romanesque, although Sara Losh described it as Lombardic. It is clear that much of the form and detail was influenced by the places Sara Losh would have visited whilst travelling in Europe; the ancient churches at Pavia, Parma and Ancona are possible sources of inspiration, as is the sixth century church of San Vitale at Ravenna with its delicate alabaster windows.
The focus of this fantastic little building is the semicircular arcaded apse, which was possibly intended to evoke the setting of the last supper. The closely spaced columns delineate thirteen sedilia, or seats, bearing the names of Jesus and his twelve disciples; within the central seven niches there are delicately coloured glass lanterns representing the gifts of the Holy Spirit. A green marble altar, supported by two bronze eagles, is placed on the chord. Below the altar, a carved frieze depicts the ears of wheat and bunches of grapes that provide the bread and wine for the communion feast. Above the chancel arch, we catch a glimpse of paradise illustrated by palm trees, and guarded by seven angels.
Whatever her inspiration, it is clear that when Sara contemplated the design of her church, she poured all she knew of art and architecture into a single astounding composition, with a unity of vision that leaves the visitor breathless. The building is awash with details rich in symbolic meaning and is a delight to the senses.
Much of the stone carving was executed by William Hindson, the son of a local builder, who was said to have been sent to Italy to hone his skills, whilst the woodcarving was the work of Mr Scott of nearby Dalston. The font was carved in local alabaster by Sara and her cousin William, and is an energetic celebration of creation, featuring Norman zigzag mouldings and Greek fluting, as well as organic forms such as the lily, butterfly, dove and pomegranate. The unusual juxtaposition of bold geometrical patterns and naturalistic flora and fauna is most unusual and whilst the carving is rather one-dimensional, there is a sense of freshness and realism that makes it a pleasing, if rather unusual, piece.
Further evidence of Sara's deep love for the natural world can be found in the exuberant decoration of the west facade of the church. Here the door and window surrounds are populated by all manner of plants and animals. The variety of creation in all its glory is displayed in fascinating detail: the left-hand window is decorated with the ammonites, seaweed and anemones of the oceans; whilst the centre window conjures up the bounty of the earth with flowers, ears of corn and giant butterflies.
The creatures of the air are found in the right-hand window where the raven, the owl, the bee and the cockchafer are seen amongst stylised pine branches. Once again, the decoration is naturalistically but flatly carved in a style that Nikolaus Pevsner likened to the Byzantine revival of the Arts and Crafts period of some 60-years later. Thankfully, the robust local sandstone has stood up well to the passage of time, and the carvings remain as crisp and as full of energy and delight as they ever were, particularly when the shadows cast by the low winter sunlight lend depth to their bold and simple shapes.
Creation and regeneration were clearly Sara's favoured themes with motifs such as the caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly appearing in different forms all around the church. A particularly delightful reference to the story of creation can be seen in a miniature shelf (pictured left), which is supported by a cockerel and an owl. These two charming, if slightly startled looking creatures, are the traditional birds of watchfulness of morning and evening, and are a reminder of God separating light and dark to create day and night.
References to biblical events are found elsewhere in the church too – the carved trail of leaves that surrounds the inner face of the west door belongs to the story of Jonah. In Jonah Chapter Four, we read that God caused a gourd to grow so that Jonah would be provided with shade. On the following day, he sent a worm to eat the plant, which withered and died, leaving Jonah with no protection from the sun and scorching wind. Follow the trail of leaves right to the floor and there you will find the worm beginning its attack on the gourd. It seems that this stylised and highly decorative plant scroll with its plump, juicy gourds and corkscrew tendrils, is also a timely warning not to tempt God's wrath!
One of Sara's most enduring motifs is the humble pinecone, which she would have recognised as a symbol of regeneration and eternal life. Pinecones are found carved in alabaster on the low narthex walls, in stone as a label stop on the west door surround, and in timber as part of the door furniture. This simple geometrical form is a constant reminder of the triumph of life over death, and a symbol of hope for the future.
The pinecone may also have had a more personal meaning for Sara as it is thought that Major Thain sent a pinecone home to Wreay shortly before his death. He was later commemorated by Sara in a carving of a pinecone on a large irregular slab in the churchyard at Wreay.
Perhaps the most memorable and striking feature of the church is the pair of lecterns that flank the chancel arch. These majestic sculptures of an eagle and a pelican are arguably the most accomplished pieces in the church with their dramatic unfurled wings and rich plumage. The pelican is particularly dynamic with its strong up-thrust beak, which catches the light from the stained glass windows (see page 16). The pelican is, of course, an ancient symbol of sacrifice, as it was commonly believed that in times of famine, the female pelican would feed its young by drawing blood from its own flesh. In time, this came to represent the sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross. In contrast, the eagle signifies the inspiration of the gospels and the hope of resurrection. Both birds are beautifully modelled with vigorously carved feathers, accented by deep shadow lines. The lecterns, carved from sweet chestnut from the nearby Lowther Estate, perch upon dense dark stumps of ancient bog oak.
More recently, many people have drawn parallels between Sara Losh and John Ruskin, another great philanthropist and Cumbrian resident. Ruskin said, “Go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly.” Whilst the carvings at St Mary's Church may not be perfect or even accurate in their detail, they do have a vibrancy and spirit which celebrates the glory of the natural world. Here we find an interest in the earth and all its creatures that Ruskin would surely have appreciated.
For some, the church at Wreay is much more than a memorial to an adored and greatly missed sister, it is also viewed as Sara's Benedicite, her song of creation: All the works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord.
The Church of St Mary at Wreay was also Sara's last and greatest building project. She died at Woodside on 29 March 1853 after catching a chill, and was buried in the Losh family enclosure on 4 April.