The Honorable Charles Hamilton, an 18th-century British aristocrat and member of Parliament, was explicit in his advertisement. The ornamental hermit he was recruiting to live in the sprawling gardens at his Painshill estate in Cobham, England, must be silent, never speaking to the servants who brought him his daily meals. He must wear a goat’s hair robe and never cut his hair, nails or beard. Shoes were out of the question.
If and only if the hermit fulfilled the terms of his contract, living in solitary contemplation without stepping foot outside of the estate for seven years, he would be rewarded with £500 to £700 (around $95,000 to $130,000 today). Mr. Remington (first name unknown), the man hired to fill the role, lasted just a fraction of that time. Three weeks after arriving, he was discovered drinking at a local pub—or so the legend goes.
Remington was one of a handful of men to cash in on—or, in his case, fail to cash in on—England’s 18th-century ornamental hermit craze. The short-lived trend, which peaked between roughly 1727 and 1830, was one of the most memorable to come out of the era’s shift from perfectly pruned, geometrically aligned gardens to wild, untamed ones in which “the irregularities and asymmetry of nature were charmingly inspirational,” says Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, a landscape architect and the author of English Garden Eccentrics: Three Hundred Years of Extraordinary Groves, Burrowings, Mountains and Menageries.
Aristocrats outfitted their new landscape gardens with unexpected, whimsical elements like caves, mountains, aviaries and menageries. But the hermitage, a secluded retreat for a real or imagined hermit that could look like anything from a grotto to a treehouse, eclipsed them all. “By 1750, if you only put in one structure in your garden, it would have been a hermitage,” says Edward S. Harwood, an art historian at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
Hermits, or individuals who withdraw from society to focus on spiritual, philosophical or intellectual pursuits, have served as a source of mystical power and curiosity for much of human history. Paul of Thebes and Anthony of Egypt, both saints born in the third century, are widely considered the first Christian hermits. Some early hermits lived in complete seclusion, while others were regarded as oracles whose access to the divine could provide ordinary Christians with insight, prophecies and medical cures, says Robin Darling Young, a historian at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
By the Middle Ages, “hermits were thick on the ground,” says Harwood. Famous medieval figures who lived at least part of their lives in isolated introspection include Pope Celestine V, who resided in a cave before assuming leadership of the church in 1294, and the 14th-century anchoress Julian of Norwich, who wrote the oldest surviving English language text known to be authored by a woman. But the one-two punch of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, which delegitimized the monastic and ascetic traditions to which many hermits belonged, and the 17th- and 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, which favored scientific reason over spiritual learning, “largely eliminated” the practice as a form of religious devotion, says Darling Young.
During England’s Georgian period, which spanned 1714 to 1830, a new form of hermeticism took shape. Combining Enlightenment ideals with more traditional elements of a reclusive lifestyle, the ornamental hermit “became a representation of the aspiration to the simple life, the life of rural retirement characterized by philosophical and scientific curiosity,” writes historian Gordon Campbell in The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome. These individuals—whether real or imagined—resided in garden hermitages, structures “predominantly used as architectural feature[s] to draw the eye in the landscape,” notes the United Kingdom’s National Trust.
According to Campbell, garden hermitages originated in southern Europe, likely during the Italian Renaissance. One of the earliest documented examples, a stone structure on an artificial island at the Château de Gaillon in Rouen, France, dates to the 1550s. Other hermitages in continental Europe include villa-like brick buildings at the Buen Retiro palace in Madrid and a “ruined” 17th-century structure decorated with statues of saints in what is now Bratislava, Slovakia.
Physician and antiquarian William Stukeley built England’s first garden hermitage at his home in Grantham in 1727. As he wrote in a letter to a fellow physician, he modeled the building after a druidic grove, hiding “a cell or grotto … like those I have frequently seen in travels” in one of its walls. When Stukeley moved to a larger estate in Stamford in 1730, his hermitage changed, too. The new structure, which sat at the back of a druidic stone circle, was decorated with sculptures and stained glass.
While medieval hermitages were used chiefly for religious purposes, English garden hermitages were decorative (a type of architecture known as garden follies), incorporating natural elements like tree roots or drawing inspiration from rustic, pastoral designs. A hermitage built for Caroline of Ansbach, wife and queen of George II, in the 1730s featured an octagonal stone sanctuary stuffed with busts of famous thinkers; in the words of one contemporary observer, the structure looked like “a heap of stones, thrown into a very artful disorder, and curiously embellished with moss and shrubs, to represent rude nature.”
Neither Stukeley’s hermitage nor Queen Caroline’s boasted a hermit-in-residence. But it wasn’t long before the idea of elevating a hermitage’s authenticity by adding a living, breathing hermit caught on. “Nothing, it was felt, could give such delight to the eye as the spectacle of an aged person, with a long gray beard and a goatish rough robe, doddering about amongst the discomforts and pleasures of nature,” wrote British poet Edith Sitwell in the 1933 book English Eccentrics.
To find their man (records indicate ornamental hermits were invariably men, writes Campbell), landowners placed advertisements in local newspapers or handbills. For the hermitage at his Lake District estate, wealthy oddball Joseph Pocklington sought a man who would live for seven years without washing or cutting his hair and nails. At another unidentified “great house in England,” an advertiser offered £300 to a hermit who would “remain bearded and in a state of picturesque dirtiness for six months in the year in an artificial cave at a suitable distance from the house—just far enough (but not too far) for the fashionable house-party, with its court of subservient poets and painters, to visit, walking there in the afternoons, peering into the semi-darkness with a little thrill of wonder and excitement.”
Landowners weren’t the only ones engaged in the hermit trade. Prospective applicants sent out inquiries, too. In a letter written sometime after 1776 (but not discovered until 2003, according to Campbell), one hopeful promised what was apparently the ornamental hermit norm:
If your honor pleases to build a small hut as a hermitage near your honor’s house in a wood with a high wall round it, your honor might hear of a man to live in it for seven years without seeing any human creature. … I mean not to cut my hair nor yet my beard nor my nails in that time. I should wish to have all necessities of life brought to me in a private place.
While silence was treasured on some estates, not every ornamental hermit was expected to live in total seclusion. One of the most famous English garden hermits, Father Francis, lived at Hawkstone, diplomat Richard Hill’s Shropshire estate, in the 1780s. He was something of a tourist attraction. Visitors delighted in seeing the wise old hermit seated in front of a table topped with the tools of his trade, including spectacles, a book, an hourglass and a skull. When Francis was asleep or otherwise indisposed (the man, his acolytes believed, was pushing 90 years old), he was replaced by a stuffed automaton dressed like a druid.
Francis’ automaton, which reportedly had the ability to speak and move, wasn’t the only stand-in to fill the role of ornamental hermit. Some estates built similar mannequins from scratch using wood and stuffing. Others dropped the life-size doll altogether, instead leaving eyeglasses or open books in the hermitage to suggest the hermit had just stepped out and would be back soon.
But “by and large,” says Harwood, “the vast majority of … garden hermitages stood empty.” Instead of hiring a hermit, estate owners retreated to their caves or huts themselves when struck by melancholy or the desire for solitude.
Though ornamental hermits popped up in Ireland and Scotland as these countries adopted the English landscape garden tradition, the trend failed to catch on elsewhere in Europe, despite equally robust hermitage traditions. Some scholars, like Campbell, speculate that garden hermits gained popularity as a response to 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who championed the idea that moral superiority could be found by abandoning concepts of ownership and civilization in favor of nature. Other researchers, like Anna Korndorf, suggest that building hermitages and staffing them with ornamental hermits was a way to push back against the abandonment of “secret knowledge” maintained by members of rejected hermetic traditions.
Harwood offers yet another explanation. Supporting a hermit who lived on the outskirts of an estate, possibly caring for a bridge or a well, was commonplace in the English countryside in the 16th century. Perhaps 18th-century landowners, some of whom were newcomers to the aristocracy, saw providing support for a hermit as a way of acquiring legitimacy. “It’s a kind of signifier of status that you’re maintaining a hermit just as the old landowners did,” Harwood says.
By the early 19th century, ornamental hermits had fallen out of favor, in part due to abolitionists’ concerns over the exploitative conditions under which these recluses lived. More than two centuries later, however, a small number of individuals continue to live separately from society, whether for religious, cultural or personal reasons.
“Back in the Middle Ages, … the hermit [was] a person you [could] go to to solve problems because he [was] not someone engaged in the toils of everyday social life,” says Harwood. “But now we live in a world where being separate like that does not bring power. In fact, power drains away from you because you’re not interacting.”
Nevertheless, the concept of the isolated thinker still looms large in the modern imagination. In 2004, almost 300 years after Remington abandoned his post at Painshill, artist David Blandy moved into the estate’s hermitage as part of a project interrogating social disconnection in an increasingly technologically dependent society. For two weeks, he went barefoot, grew his hair long and refused to speak. Unlike his predecessor, however, Blandy had one important tool to keep him from defecting to the local tavern: a steady soundtrack of 1970s soul music.