Thursday, December 13, 2012

Making and mourning

Christmas books: 3

The next of my handful of Christmas books is the biography of a little known amateur architect who was responsible for the design of one of the most extraordinary buildings of the 19th century. When I learned that Jenny Uglow – author of excellent biographies of William Hogarth, Thomas Bewick, and others – was tackling this subject I was eager to get my hands on the book. My eagerness was justified…

Jenny Uglow, The Pinecone
Published by Faber and Faber

The Pinecone is a biography of Sarah Losh, heiress in a prominent family in the northwest of England, and creator of the church of St Mary in the village of Wreay, south of Carlisle, one of the most extraordinary buildings of the 19th century. Sarah Losh is interesting for all kinds of reasons – for her local philanthropy, for her connections with many of the luminaries of the 19th century from the poet Wordsworth to the engineer George Stephenson, for her role as a woman architect in a man's world. and for the visionary design of her church, a building that has been puzzling people ever since it was built in the 1840s.

Jenny Uglow tells this story with intelligence and verve. She is sometimes hampered by the fact that most of her subject's papers have been destroyed – never mind the creation of a remarkable building, Uglow's biographical task occasionally seems to be like making bricks without straw. But she is helped by being able to look at Losh through her links with others. So we see Losh hearing poems read by Wordsworth and Coleridge before publication, paying calls in Carlisle and in Newcastle, where her family were prominent manufacturers, learning from her radical uncle James (friend of William Godwin), and interacting with her beloved sister Katharine, whose early death cast such a shadow over her life. For this is also one of the great sibling-bond stories, joining William Wordsworth and Dorothy, Jane Austen and Cassandra, William Herschel and Caroline.

Above all there is her church. St Mary's Wreay looks more like a work of the Arts and Crafts period of the1880s than a building of the 1840s. But not even the Arts and Crafts produced a structure quite like this, covered with carvings that are far outside the usual church orbit – a tortoise gargoyle, a crocodile, a dragon, lotus buds, gourds, and pinecones (the latter symbolic variously of creation, reproduction, enlightenment, the spirit of man, and the expansion of consciousness). There are carved angels, it is true, but you have to look hard to find much traditional Christian imagery. It is as if Sarah Losh, having daringly entered the male preserve of architecture, looked at the whole business from a different viewpoint, that of a kind of pan-religious perspective, where all faiths are as one.

By describing Sarah's church in such detail, Jenny Uglow also describes her somewhat elusive subject, Sarah herself and her concerns. The church is an act of making and also an act of mourning (for Sarah's parents and sister and other family members); it is both a gathering together of diverse religious symbols and a very specific act of benevolence to the village of Wreay itself, to which Sarah also contributed a school and numerous hand-outs in times of need; it is both a display of traditional craftsmanship and an artistic bolt out of the blue. Uglow's book nails all this – but does not lose sight of the oddity of the place or the elusiveness of its creator.

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