The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow

I really can’t remember where I first learned about The Pinecone, but I am so very glad that I did, that I met a remarkable woman who lived in Georgian England and created an extraordinary church.

“The gargoyles are turtles and dragons. Instead of saints and prophets, the window embrasures are carved with ammonites and coral, poppies and wheat, caterpillar and butterfly. Inside, the light is filtered through strange stained glass, bright leaves on black backgrounds, kaleidoscopic mosaics, alabaster cut-outs of fossils. The pulpit is a hollow tree trunk made from black oak, dug from the bog. An eagle and stork of ferocious energy hold up the lectern and reading desk and on the altar table, instead of a cross, are two candlesticks in the shape of the lotus, immortal flower of the East.”

Sarah Losh

Sarah Losh’s own voice is missing, because none of her letters and journals survive, and yet Jenny Uglow has still found the resources to  create a compelling story of her life, her times, her world, and most of all the church that she created

The story is well served by the distance that brings. It gives clarity, and it keeps the focus on the course of her life and work rather than particular details and incidents.

She was born in 1786, the daughter of a Cumberland Squire. Her family had made a fortune in industry; they were politically radical; they were religious dissenters; they took a great interest in art and culture; and they were deeply involved in the life of their community.

All of that meant that Sarah & her sister, Katharine, had the best of upbringings. They attended balls and receptions, they mixed with all manner of interesting people, they travelled, and they had the freedom to determine how they would live their lived.

Neither sister chose to marry and they lived their lives together, in the family home that they would inherit from their father. They were close, and both were happy with the path they had chosen. Sarah loved to read and she had a deep and abiding interest in history. She continued to travel, and as she did her interest in architecture, and especially in the style she saw in Italy & France, grew.

Both sisters were involved in the running of their estate and in the affairs of their village.  That involvement came from an understanding of the privileged position they had been given, and genuine caring for the people around them.

When the local graveyard was full they gave more space from their own land. Sarah designed a chapel to be built there, inspired by a recent visit to a Cornish Chapel. She wanted to employ local craftsmen, to use traditional materials and method, and to create something for her community.

That was her first work, and the same principle would underpin all of her work, culminating in the extraordinary church she built at Wreay.

Katherine had died and her  church became everything to her. She drew on all she knew about architecture, all that she had seen on her travels, all that she had studied, to create that church.  It was a simple, classical building richly adorned with carvings, stained glass and statues, drawn from nature and from legend, and from far and wide. Trees, angels, lotus flowers, snakes, eagles, pine cones ….

In 1869, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, staying with friends near Carlisle, reported in a letter to his mother that he had come across ‘some most remarkable architectural works by a former Miss Losh. She must have been really a great genius,’ he wrote, ‘and should be better known.’

She should.

Jenny Uglow puts the creation of Sarah’s church at the centre of her story, but she also tells the bigger story. The story of her family, and the story of her age. An age when lives were still being lived as they had for centuries but change was coming. Industry, science, railways …

And she draws some interesting parallels, between Sarah and Katherine Losh and Jane and Cassandra Austen; and between Sarah Losh and Dorothea Brooke.

All of these strands are woven together perfectly, and the story is told beautifully, and with obvious love.

6 responses

  1. I am in the library queue for this one – but the copies apparently haven’t arrived yet. I’m really looking forward to it – and you’ve confirmed why!

  2. I finished it yesterday afternoon with a sigh of regret! I loved it………and I love the images you’ve included in your review. Sarah’s church I would dearly like to visit.

  3. What a fascinating story! The church sounds like something out of a novel — maybe an A.S. Byatt or an Elizabeth Goudge. I will definitely look for this book.

  4. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: The Pinecone | The Literary Omnivore

  5. Pingback: Now We Are Six ….. « Fleur in her World

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