Lovelorn Victorian women with wild imaginations and money to back their dreams seem to abound in the north of England. Louisa, Lady Waterford for instance, whose dashing husband was killed in a hunting accident before he was 40 set about an exemplary social building programme at Ford in Northumberland to assuage her grief. The crowning glory among her new cottages was a fine village school whose walls are covered in religious murals painted by her over several years.
At about the same time, on the other side of the Cheviots, Sarah Losh was mourning the loss not only of her only sister, Catherine, but also of her neighbour, Major William Thain. Sarah was beautiful, dignified, passionate about the arts, and had spent time in Italy. She was brought up surrounded by interesting and innovative people – her father, a friend of Wordsworth, and her uncle William, a friend of George Stephenson, had founded an ironworks in Newcastle which made them a small fortune. Sarah was well equipped to mastermind the building of the extraordinary church and mausoleum which today stand testament to her love and her faith in God.
The village green with its central seat around a flagpole, the small straggle of cottages and the church shaded by beech and yew are easily missed. Wreay is set in the flat, undistinguished farmland of the Solway Plain just south of Carlisle, squashed in a tight sandwich between the M6 motorway and the mainline railway, but all that is forgotten when you arrive. It is worth breaking any journey on the M6 to stop off and have your heart lifted by Sarah Losh’s moving masterpiece.
Sarah lived at the family home of Woodside, a long walk up a straight, treeless road from the dilapidated church of St Mary’s. In 1840 she decided to rebuild the church and by 1842, after spending £1,200, it was ready to be consecrated. Fast work – but she had the advantage of being on the spot and of employing most of the villagers. Her gardener did the woodcarving, including the panel on the west door which represents a gourd being eaten by a caterpillar. The windows are bright with coloured leaves in black glass and fragments of ancient glass brought from the ruins of the archbishop’s palace in Paris by Sarah’s cousin, William Losh.
The local stonemason, Mr Hindson, was sent to Italy for a few months to improve his skills and returned to enliven the plain Romanesque church with the natural world. The chancel arch is decorated with palm trees and angels, the alabaster font with pomegranates and butterflies which Sarah helped to carve; an eagle supports the lectern, a pelican the reading desk, a hollowed oak stump in stone is the pulpit. Sarah’s recurring theme – the conflict between life and death, light and darkness – pervades. Angels triumph over bats and dragons, chrysalises and butterflies represent death and resurrection. But the most poignant carvings of all are the many pine cones – classical symbols of eternal life. A real pine cone had been sent to Sarah by Major Thain, the local hero who had fought at Waterloo but was eventually killed in the Afghan War in 1842. Perhaps Sarah was in love with him or maybe Catherine. The mausoleum in the churchyard houses a delicately carved alabaster figure of Catherine clothed in a simple tunic, holding a pine cone in her hand.
Architectural historians are impressed but puzzled over Wreay. They worry that its building anticipated Ruskinian dogma in the use of estate labour and simple local labourers as craftsmen, and that the stylised carvings of nature look as though they belong to the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 1900s. But Sarah Losh was simply half a century ahead of her time with her brave new style and her wild imagination. Not everything has to be put in a box. I’m glad Wreay is out on a limb.