Wanted: an ornamental hermit

When asked to think of a hermit, most people would imagine a bearded old monk sitting in a cave battered by sea-spray or desert winds, along the lines of St Guthlac, St Antony or Simeon the Stylite (whom I mentioned in one of my first posts). This picture may have been true in the medieval period, but by the 18th century real hermits were in short supply. Instead, a new craze grew for wealthy landowners to install ornamental hermits in their garden.

An ornamental hermit was not in fact a type of garden gnome, but a real person who was paid to live in a specially constructed hermitage for a certain period of time. Why? Well, because it was fashionable, of course. One contemporary observed – possibly with some exaggeration – that “even the splendid scenes, which surround the palaces of wealth and greatness, are never thought complete, unless marked by some shady care and the abode of an anchorite”. Unlike the early anchorites, 18th century ornamental hermits did not perform a religious function; wealthy landowners saw no need to be harangued for their sins or given spiritual advice every time they stepped out into their garden.

A typical ornamental hermitage. Engraving in 'Universal Architecture', 1755
A typical ornamental hermitage. Engraving in ‘Universal Architecture’, 1755

The qualifications required of an ornamental hermit seem to have been rather vague, though the motivations of the would-be hermit are a little easier to discern. Captain Philip Thicknesse, who became an ornamental hermit near Bath late in life, reflected that he had “obtained that which every man aims for but few acquire; solitude and retirement”. Evidently the desire for peace and quiet could be an incentive. Perhaps it was also seen as a relatively easy way to earn money. This advertisement by a would-be hermit in the Courier in 1810 hints at both motives:


“A young man, who wishes to retire from the world and live as a hermit, in some convenient spot in England, is willing to engage with any nobleman or gentleman who may be desirous of having one. Any letter addressed to S. Laurence (post paid), to be left at Mr. Otton’s No. 6 Coleman Lane, Plymouth, mentioning what gratuity [salary] will be given, and all other particulars, will be duly attended.”

1790 caricature of Captain Philip Thicknesse, sometime ornamental hermit
1790 caricature of Captain Philip Thicknesse, sometime ornamental hermit

Once in employment, the requirements made of hermits were always similar – wear a frayed robe, don’t cut your beard or nails, don’t speak a word to anyone, don’t leave the confines of the estate – but living conditions varied. One landowner near Preston, Lancashire, offered a life of relative comfort; the hermit would have access to a cold bath, a chamber organ, as many books as he wanted, and provisions from his employer’s own table. If he wanted anything, he had only to ring a bell and a servant would attend to his needs. Despite this, the hermit there only lasted four years out of the stipulated seven, before giving it up for – one presumes – a more exciting life.

Some situations were altogether less comfortable. The hermitage at Painshill Park, built by Charles Hamilton near Cobham, Surrey, was partly underground and protected only by a tangle of tree roots and artfully twisted logs. The hermit had to sleep on a hay sack, and his possessions were limited to a Bible, spectacles and an hour-glass. The final reward for living in such spartan conditions was generous; anyone who could stick it out for seven years would receive 700 guineas, a considerable amount. However, the first hermit only lasted three weeks; he was promptly fired after he was spotted drinking in the local pub. It’s not known whether Hamilton hired another hermit or gave up the project entirely.

The reasons for installing a hermitage (with an optional hermit) in one’s garden were varied. Horace Walpole, with his trademark wit, remarked that the hermitage was the sort of ornament whose merit soonest fades, it being almost comic to set aside a quarter of one’s garden to be melancholy in. He did, however, somewhat miss the point; there were other motivations besides being melancholy, not least of which was that hermitages were a fashionable addition to one’s estate and would be sure to impress visitors. Over the course of the 18th century, it became increasingly acceptable for grand houses to open up their doors to visitors. A walk round the park and gardens was common, and a tour around the main rooms in the house might sometimes be allowed.

Naturally, this sort of sightseeing – which predated the National Trust by over a century – was only permitted for gentlefolk. The classic example is found in Pride and Prejudice, where Mr Darcy’s housekeeper shows Elizabeth and her relatives around Darcy’s estate at Pemberley in order to marvel at the grandeur of the facade, the tasteful interior and the extensive park. No hermitage is mentioned (presumably Mr Darcy would not stoop to such faddishness), but it would have been a common sight in many country estates where other follies included Chinese bridges and pagodas, ruined abbeys and classical temples.

The Chinese bridge at Painshill Park, Surrey. Such follies hint at the popularity of Chinoiserie in 18th century fashion and design.
The Chinese bridge at Painshill Park, Surrey. Such follies hint at the popularity of Chinoiserie in 18th century fashion and design.
The 'ruined abbey' at Painshill. A reflection of the growing interest in the Gothic.
The ‘ruined abbey’ at Painshill. A reflection of the growing interest in the Gothic.
The Pantheon at Stourhead, Wiltshire. Classical-style 'remains' were by far the most popular follies in 18th century England.
The Pantheon at Stourhead, Wiltshire. Classical-style ‘remains’ were by far the most popular follies in 18th century England.

Accordingly, a hermitage was an object of curiosity designed to impress visitors. A live hermit was infinitely more impressive and exciting than an empty hermitage, as can be seen in the case of the Hawkstone Park hermit. Hawkstone Park, situated in Shropshire, was first landscaped by Sir Rowland Hill (1705-1783), whose father had propelled the family into wealth and aristocratic status. It soon became a highly popular tourist attraction; so popular, indeed, that his son Richard had to have a pub, The Hawkstone Arms, built specifically to house all the visitors.

In the course of the improvements, which were designed to show off the family’s new wealth, status and good taste, Sir Rowland and his son had a hermitage installed with a real hermit. It appears that the hermit lived there for some fourteen years under the condition that he held an hour-glass, refrained from cutting his beard and accepting money from visitors, and behaved like Giordano Bruno (a 16th century Italian friar and philosopher). However, by 1810 he was gone and an automaton had been put in his place. One visitor maintained that it was the “popular voice against slavery” which had induced Sir Richard Hill to substitute the hermit with an automaton which, “dressed in the proper professional robe of an Ornamental Hermit”, apparently moved and spoke. Alas, the automaton doesn’t appear to have been as impressive, and it elicited grumblings from later visitors.

Hawkstone Park, Shropshire
Hawkstone Park, Shropshire
The phenomenon of the ornamental hermit is an amusing example of the excesses of the Georgian landed classes, but it also has a deeper significance. The coming into fashion of hermitages was closely connected to the rise of the English landscape garden, an entirely new movement which replaced the Baroque formality of earlier gardens with naturalistic parklands featuring gently rolling hills, meandering rivers and clumps of trees set against a woodland background. Already in 1713 Alexander Pope was writing of the merits of “the amiable Simplicity of unadorned Nature”. It was this ideal, of liberated (yet perfected) nature, which influenced the new style of landscaping. Hermitages fitted in because they were thought to be a refuge from civilisation, a place of calm and solitude in natural surroundings. An ornamental hermit, if one was employed, was a symbol of Man’s original state; he represented a being who had renounced civilisation in order to commune with the natural world.

The great irony of all this is that the seemingly-naturalistic parks and attendant hermitages were far from natural. The building of such landscapes required much careful planning and hard work in order to shift hundreds of tonnes of soil, to widen rivers, and so on. Had Georgian landowners truly wished to create a ‘natural’ environment, they ought to have torn down their grand houses and waited for the weeds to take over. Landscapes such as the park at Blenheim Palace, below, were carefully and artfully created. Despite their relative artificiality, such scenes have somehow become one of the ultimate representations of ‘Englishness’. If Helen of Troy was the woman launched a thousand ships, it could be said that the 18th century English landscape garden, with its hermitage and live-in hermit, was the fashion which launched a thousand Downton Abbeys.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Landscaped by Capability Brown in the 1760s. The sweeping lawns, the harmoniously placed trees and the peaceful lake and bridge are hallmarks of the new English landscape gardening.
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Landscaped by Capability Brown in the 1760s. The sweeping lawns, the harmoniously placed trees and the peaceful lake and bridge are hallmarks of the new English landscape gardening.

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