Self-taught architect of a curious and beautiful church.
In the village of Wreay in Cumbria, five miles from the city of Carlisle, stands the curious and beautiful St. Marys Church, which since its construction in the mid-19th century has aroused much commentary and a good deal of wonderment. The pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti called it “a church in the Byzantine style, full of beauty and imaginative detail, though extremely severe and simple” and by any measure “much more original than the things done by the young architects now.” But he could not find words to describe the church well and wished for others to see this “most beautiful thing.” A century later the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner had his own descriptive struggles: he dubbed the buildings style “Byzantino-Naturalistic,” and said it was “a crazy building without any doubt.”Yet when Pevsner put the question “What is best in church architecture during the years of Queen Victoria?” he insisted that “the first building to call out” had to be the church at Wreay. Similarly, Simon Jenkins, in his lovely book Englands Thousand Best Churches, calls St. Marys “one of the most eccentric small churches in England” but thinks it a masterpiece with no clear antecedents, no pattern from which it derives. Its architect was “a single original mind, … an individual genius.” That genius was not a professional architect—indeed, lacked any formal architectural training—and was merely the chief landowner in the vicinity of Wreay. Her name was Sarah Losh, and in The Pinecone Jenny Uglow tells her story.