Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends:
Jenny Uglow imagines Sarah Losh surveying her small kingdom at Wreay. The world she had created. The church, the mausoleum to her sister, the cross, the school and the mortuary chapel that she had built. “Sitting on the low wall with its rounded arches, around the enclosure of family graves, on a March day in 1850, Sarah Losh could feel snow in the breeze as she listened to the children’s voices from the school across the road that she and her sister Katharine had built long ago.”
It is, for a moment, as though we might know her. In one way we do. Her buildings are the only biography we need, a wonderful representation of a poetic soul, an image of a deeply-lived inner life in wood and stone.
We know so little of the actual life of this fascinating woman who deserves to stand alongside other great artists of the Romantic age.
Henry Lonsdale’s short biography offers few facts and much opinion. Tantalisingly, it reprints just a few pages from the journal Sarah kept when she and Katharine travelled to Italy in 1816. We glimpse, for a brief moment, her response to scenes described by Shelley, Byron, and others who took the same tour. Losh is serious, but never entirely solemn, irreverent, shifting from “dry amusement to lyrical immersion in place”. And she is “also profoundly romantic. Everything she saw in Pompeii or Paestum spoke to her of transience.”
Her uncle James, Newcastle barrister, businessman and man of letters, provides momentary snapshots throughout her life. The thirty-three volumes of his Diaries, which are kept in Carlisle Library, cover the years from 1796, when Sarah was ten, to 1833, when he died, aged seventy, but still as busy and involved as ever. James took the sisters to the sea at Allonby and he read to them from the poets. Newly married, he took them to Bristol, where they met Southey and read unpublished poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge. After the death of their father, his eldest brother, John, in 1814, he had an “affecting interview” with Sarah. He felt that, “She seems to suffer from those doubts and anxieties which are too common to minds of sensibility.” And he and William Wordsworth were among Sarah’s guests in 1830, when they passed “a very pleasant and tranquil evening” at Woodside.
Otherwise, there are only a few documents, a few brief mentions in The Carlisle Journal or The Carlisle Patriot and the appearance of her name on the lists of charity donors.
The biographer must long to read those long lost journals or the hundreds of letters she sent to friends or, especially the poems she is said to have written.
With none of these, Jenny Uglow is forced to write Sarah Losh’s biography from the outside in. She describes each of the scales of the pinecone as though, knowing them one by one, we might come to appreciate the hidden heart.
One scale was the family history. It told of Sarah’s grandfather, “the Big Black Squire” being famous as “almost the last man to fight the Scots raiders”. The Arloshes were named for the town on the Solway with its church “built of cobbles and sandstone . . .’half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scots’”.
Another was a Carlisle prospering in the years after the Jacobite Rebellion. Cotton and calico printing brought wealth and at the turn of the century John Losh was one of its leading citizens, a banker, land-owner, industrialist, grand master among the masons, and later, High Sheriff. He was a whig in a city dominated by the tory, Sir James Lowther, ‘Wicked Jimmy’, one of the wealthiest men in England.
John Losh mixed with the cultured of the area, with the Speddings and the Howards, with the clergy – remarkable men like Dean Isaac Milner and William Paley, but he also had time for his learned curate, William Gaskin, and for the affairs of the village administered by the Twelve Men of Wreay.
She read widely, voraciously. Not just the novels of the day, but history, theology, comparative religions, mythology, mathematics, science and geology. The plodding tortoise that emerges from beneath the roof might be the very one that William Buckland placed on the table to demonstrate the fossil prints found just across the Solway.
And she studied architecture. She was as familiar with Rickman’s book on the Gothic as she was with the early church at Perranzabuloe or the cross at Bewcastle, both of which she studied and transformed.
Jenny Uglow shows us how she built the church. “Sarah was on site almost every day, mulling over problems, and talking to Hindson (her builder), whose skill and advice she greatly appreciated.”
She carved the alabaster font with her cousin William Septimus. It was “hard, long work, carving the stone out a chip at a time” to make “a work of relaxed accomplishment, shared delight”.
“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 beneath Christian imagery and ritual.” Pinecones were found in Egypt, Babylon, Ancient Greece, in Rome, “in Catholic churches and Masonic halls” and Descartes had suggested that the cone-shaped pineal gland might be the ‘abode of the spirit of man’. The images conjured up “the strata of spiritual rather than geological time”.
The pale likeness of Katharine gazes at a pinecone in her lap as she sits beneath the heavy Cyclopean stones of the mausoleum – “A cell, where Sarah could, at last, contain her grief.”
A pinecone represented the gift of a tree from William Thain, a hardened soldier who longed nostalgically for the banks of the Petteril, where he had spent the summers of his childhood. And the violent arrow in the wall might recall his violent death in Afghanistan.
Jenny Uglow has woven her biography from the richest fabric. Her extraordinary sensitivity to place and person enables us to see Sarah just as we are able to glimpse the pale likeness of Katharine in her mausoleum.
With the wealth of detail, the breadth of her awareness, the range of her reference, Jenny Uglow creates every scale of the pinecone so that we feel we know the remarkable woman who lies at its heart. Sarah Losh has left us a rich work of art that we feel we understand, but one which will never reveal its secret heart.
Jenny Uglow will be speaking about The Pinecone at the St Mary’s Open Day at Wreay on Saturday, 22nd September. The second volume of the Sarah Losh Journal will also be available at the Open Day.