I think Sarah Losh’s vision here was quite remarkable and perhaps shows that the Arts & Crafts Movement were not as avant garde as they liked to believe!
More than that, however, I am intrigued about what insights Wreay Church might give us into the ways in which her predecessors in mediaeval times might have thought and worked. By dint of the derelict state of the church and her financing its rebuilding, Sarah was obviously given a free hand in the reconstruction. It would be easy to forget that she did not own the church and its land.
I spent a lot of time studying the work of the masons in the East Midlands; work that resulted in my book “Demon Carvers and Mooning Men”. During that period I found that remarkably little is known of the modus operandi of the masons who created our parish churches. For much of the twentieth century there was a widespread assumption that our parish churches were in some way “commissioned” by the clergy or even by the “Local Bishop”. The reality was very different. Most of our stone parish churches would have started life under the patronage of the local Norman grandee parachuted in by William after the Conquest.. Others would have been commissioned by monasteries and priories and maintained by them with varying degrees of enthusiasm until the Reformation. In many cases, the local nobility and minor gentry would have continued to endow the local church, not least in order to gain a degree of remission from the dreaded Purgatory. It cannot be over-emphasised, however, that the prime movers in church building, and particularly in the expansion of churches in the High Gothic period, were the layity and not the clergy.
It is now well-established from the scant written evidence we have that the Master Mason had extraordinary discretion in church construction. Yes, we know that patrons - who were sometimes just the worthies of the parish - would have suggested or approved the broad outline of work. We have evidence that patrons often specified that their church should be similar to one down the road - only theirs should be bigger and better! We also know, however, that none would have been in any position to challenge the Master Mason about what was possible and what was not. There is no evidence that the parishes were in any position to call for tenders from masons and we might even suppose that the Masons Guilds would make darned sure that no such competition could take place. The mediaeval world was not shocked by monopolies and cartels as we are today. Nor we should suppose that the appointed Master would have been submitting detailed plans for approval by some sort of Committee such as we would take for granted today. In my book I debunk the idea that the decoration of a church - in particular external friezes and gargoyles - has some religious or spiritual significance had we the eyes to see it. Oh, those spiritual Mooning Men eh?!
Sarah Losh’s Church is her vision. Five hundred years after masons were carving whatever they fancied on the outsides of churches in Northern Oxfordshire and the East Midlands and all over England, there is no suggestion that Sarah Losh had to consult anyone about the detail of her decorative scheme either. Much of what we see on the inside of the church, to be sure, is overtly or subtly religious but try looking for butterflies and owls in most parish churches if you want to waste a year or two of your life. In modern parlance, Sarah “did her own thing”. Indeed, when we look at the work she commissioned we might surmise that Sarah’s real love was that of the natural world in which she saw the work of God.
What do we see on the outside of the church? The most grotesque - and amusing - of gargoyles. Iron arrows; sea shells; owls; insects. Just as with mediaeval carving, you can find religious “explanations” if it pleases you. Yet, what I see here is that Sarah Losh decided that the outside of the church was her canvas. This is where, as much as any Christian Victorian lady could, Sarah had a bit of fun.
Just like her mediaeval predecessors, in fact.