When Sarah Losh turned 18 in 1794 in Northern England, one of her uncles described the social scene she faced: “The men gave themselves airs and seemed to consider dancing as too much exertion, while the ladies sat like so many animals waiting for a purchaser.” Sarah decided not to enter the marriage market but to build her own life and do as she wanted. She was lucky not to have to marry for money, because she was a wealthy heiress and she and her sister Katherine inherited their father’s estates in Cumbria.
Sarah and Katherine had been well-educated. Their family were merchants and intellectuals who believed in rationality, science, and manufacturing. They participated in the beginning of the industrial revolution which brought railroads and factories into even the rural village of Wreay where the family had lived for generations. But Sarah and Katherine appreciated the history of their community as well as its future and tried to preserve its buildings and celebrate its past. They traveled to France and Italy and learned about the culture and art of Europe. Sarah decided she wanted to design buildings for her community and became a self-taught architect.
The unusual and lovely church of St. Mary’s in Wreay is her major monument, but it is not the only building she financed and planned. She also built schools and a home for a school teacher. Jenny Uglow has written a fascinating biography of Sarah Losh called The Pinecone, which is now available in libraries and bookstores.
The title comes from one of Sarah’s favorite decorative motifs, the Scots pine, Britain’s only native conifer. Reading the book gives us an appreciation of how a woman, even in those times, could build a satisfying life by pushing beyond the limits society would place on her.
Even today few women become architects, and that seems curious to me because women are so often the people who care most about buildings—houses, schools, churches. They decorate and sustain the buildings, but not too many of them design and build them. One contemporary woman architect has written an account of her life in her chosen profession and how it became intertwined with her family and social activism. That is Wendy Bertrand whose book Enamored with Place is available at her website and well worth reading. So let’s celebrate all the women who have widened the world for girls and women everywhere by pushing the boundaries of women’s work and place in the world.