History is full of home trends that at one point felt essential to someone but that eventually went the way of the dodo. I plan on writing several posts about some of these trends, and I'm more than pleased to begin the series with one of my all-time favorites: the ornamental hermit.
Yes, you heard me right, and it's precisely what it sounds like. The ornamental hermit was a (usually elderly) man that, provided one had the means to do so, one would hire to live in the garden. The hermit would reside in an on-premises hermitage and make routine appearances to the home owner and his guests, given that
Nothing, it was felt, could give such delight to the eye, as the spectacle of an aged person, with a long grey beard, and a goatish rough robe, doddering about amongst the discomforts and pleasures of Nature (Edith Sitwell, English Eccentrics (1933)).
The eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English trend was short-lived but more widespread than you might imagine. Noblemen and country gentlemen found the hermits essential to a complete English garden, and often, they were hired at great expense. My favorite account of an ornamental hermit comes from John Timbs' English Eccentrics and Eccentricities (1866; quoted in Sitwell):
The Honourable Charles Hamilton, whose estate was at Pains Hall, near Cobham, Surrey, and who lived in the reign of King George II, was one of those admirers of singularity and silence, and, having advertised for a hermit, he built a retreat for this ornamental but retiring person on a steep mound on his estate...[The hermit had to] continue on the hermitage seven years, where he shall be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton's grounds, or exchange one word with the servant.
If the hermit was able to last seven years at his task, Hamilton promised to pay him £700, but he was to receive none of it should he fail. The first man he hired lasted only three weeks before he was spotted at a local pub. Hermits and hermit-seekers alike published advertisements in local newspapers, although, as one contemporary pointed out, “surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence." º
On a more serious note, Gordon Campbell, who recently published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome, has argued that the hermit is best viewed as a public symbol of melancholy, an emotion with which we have become uncomfortable. In the past, cultivated sadness indicated a sensitive soul and a fine sensibility — by spending one's money to employ a garden hermit, one was tipping one's hat to the value of such deep emotion.
For more, see:
(Image: "A Hermit's Cell," from William Wright's Grotesque Architecture (1790), available at FullTable.com)