Of pinecones and fossils

In the fall I read some reviews of Jenny Uglow’s book, The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine — Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary. I knew I wanted to read it and put it on my Christmas list. But no one could find it…

Never mind. I saw a small stack of copies at the Frick in New York in late March and bought a copy for myself. Last night I read the last page and was sad to know I’d finished what had been an extraordinary introduction to a woman, a pivotal time, and a church. Yes, a church. For among her other accomplishments, Sarah Losh designed and built a church in her small Cumbrian village of Wreay.

She was born in 1786 into a wealthy family — they were industrialists, with large holdings of land in and around Carlisle. Her father’s home was Woodside. Sarah never married but enjoyed a wide variety of friendships with intelligent and fascinating people. Wordsworth visited Woodside. The Losh family encouraged their daughters to travel and read widely and (it seems) to think for themselves.

On a trip to Europe in 1816-7, she was entranced by  “the Lombardic churches of Pavia, Parma and Ancona, and the Byzantine basilicas of Ravenna, the mosaics and alabaster windows.” These were in her mind in 1841 when she approached the Twelve Men of Wreay to propose that she build a church to replace the deteriorating village chapel. Also in her mind were the small Norman churches of the deep English countryside. She loved the simplicity and the mystery of these architectural styles.

I loved reading about the decorative elements of Sarah’s church. She was fascinated by what Uglow calls “the strata of belief…the wheat of Demeter and the grapes of Dionysus…behind the bread and wine of the sacrament.”  Lotuses, pomegranates, poppy-heads ripe with seeds, oak leaves (with their echo of Pan), lilies, butterflies, pinecones, and what Sarah called her “emblematic monsters”:  roof creatures, gargoyle-like, serving to hide ventilators, including a winged tortoise, a crocodile, and a great toothed snake.

All kinds of craftsmen were enlisted to create pieces for the church. The stained glass windows were made by William Wailes, who used some pieces of glass from the shattered windows of the Hotel de Sens collected by Sarah’s cousin William Septimus in Paris during the fighting of 1830. And the image which contains these fragments? “The flower made from the fragments was deadly nightshade, named by Linnaeus as Atropa belladonna, the devil’s herb and witch’s berry which can lead, if eaten, to delirium, coma and death. It is Atropa after Atropos, the oldest of the three Fates, who cuts the thread of each mortal life with her shears while her sisters spin the thread and measure its length.” That strata of belief again.

William Septimus taught Sarah to carve so she could contribute her own work to the church. She made lotus candlesticks and helped William with the font, cut from a block of alabaster and decorated with “the curving spores of fern, water lilies and lotus flowers, a butterfly above a leaf, hairy ears of wheat and barley, a hovering dragonfly, a curling grapevine, a pomegranate, a feathery dove with an olive leaf.” Can’t you just see that?

Sarah remembered the windows of the sixth-century basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna from her Italian travels decades earlier, built before glass was in common use, so instead covered with thin alabaster sheets which filtered amber light into the church. She designed and cut patterns based on local fossils — ferns, palms… — out of alabaster sheets which were encased in glass for a similar effect but adding the dimension of ancient prehistory brought to light. It’s this playful and slightly subversive intelligence that I found so compelling in Sarah Losh.

The Pinecone celebrates the kind of passionate amateur so often encountered in Victorian society. One didn’t necessarily strive to be an expert in one particular field but to know something about many — botany, geology, literature, music, architecture, for example. And among their numbers, it is so marvellous to find Sarah Losh.