Ornamental hermits: an 18th century 'must-have'
If you’re looking for a unique gift idea this Christmas, why not take a lesson from history? How about an ornamental hermit – an actual, living hermit who could reside in your garden and spend their time in contemplation and melancholy?
Perhaps not, but for wealthy landowners in the 18th century the ornamental hermit was something of a fashion statement. Professor Gordon Campbell from our School of English investigates the practice in his book “The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Garden Gnome”, where he finds links from it to today’s most debated garden accessory.
It was highly fashionable for owners of country estates to commission architectural follies for their landscape gardens, many of which included hermitages comprising of a small cottage, cave or contemplative gazebo. Often, landowners would inhabit their hermitages with imaginary or, in some cases, real hermits.
Hermits were often hired for seven years, required to refrain from cutting their hair or washing and had to live austerely. They could receive up to £600 in return, enough to never work again.
The practice died out in the 18th century, but its influence can be seen in literature and art of the day.
Professor Campbell argues that the motivations behind hiring a hermit reflect a lost appreciation of emotional depth, or the ‘pleasing melancholy’. In the early modern period, melancholy, like romantic love, was an emotion restricted to the upper echelons of society, as only nobility of birth endowed one with the requisite depth of character. In the eighteenth century melancholy became highly desirable and in England gave rise to a school of graveyard poets, exemplified by Thomas Gray's ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’.
Forty years ago, while reading around the circumstances of John Milton’s death (Milton’s body was dug up and parts of it sold long after his death) Professor Campbell first came across the subject of keeping an ornamental hermit in Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics: a gallery of weird and wonderful men and women, first published in 1933. He was captivated and the publication of his book represents a release from that long captivity.
You can order a copy of Professor Campbell's book via the University Bookshop – and it even includes a handy checklist of surviving hermitages in the UK and Ireland.