REVIEWS Hermits Dwellings

Gordon Campbell. The Hermit in the Garden: from Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Just as books from Rotha Mary Clay to Tom License have detailed the history of medieval English hermits, Gordon Campbell picks up from the post-Reformation and dissolution eras when hermits in England disappeared to chronicle the emergence of the secular and "ornamental" 18th-century hermits, the droll and imitative successors to historical hermits, if one call them even that.

With a strong background in literature, art, architecture and gardening history, Campbell is the apt source for compiling the antiquarian details of the English upper-class affectation for pretend hermitages, hermits, and eventually gnomes.

There is a decidedly antiquarian air to the whole effort, and readers are tipped off to the tone of the book with Campbell's prefatory remark that the topic and his subsequent research were inspired by Edith Sitwell's 1933 English Eccentrics (review), not a book of true hermits but about eccentrics and a few who played at being hermits.

The book's subtitle is just for rhyme -- instances of secular hermitages before the 18th century are few: a small house on Hadrian's villa estate, the notion of Adam's hut in literature, European court garden retreats, the example of British medieval hermits, and, of course, Rousseau.

The revolution in garden design in eighteenth-century England brought follies into landscape gardens, and these follies often included hermitages. In some circles it was deemed desirable to hire a hermit to live in one's hermitage. These were not religious figures, but decidedly secular. They were figures in the landscape, but their existence reflected a conscious vein in Georgian culture.

In chapter 2, "The Idea of the Hermit," Campbell discusses five contexts of Georgian ideas about ornamental hermits: the horticultural (the theme of naturalness and a distinctive English style), the antiquarian (druidism), the philosophical (Rousseau, and the cult of melancholy), the literary (Spenser, Milton, Gray, Parnell, Beatie, Fielding, and Johnson), and the architectural (from Adam's hut to 17th century pastoralism to the shift of social sympathies by women).

The decline of the religious hermit was succeeded by the cultivation of melancholy, the rise of abolitionism, and the rise of romanticism. Even in its heyday, the demand for humans to sit as hermits was pursued by just a handful of eccentrics. "Collectors of ornamental hermits have found that their numbers are disconcertingly few," notes the author. These are the subject of his quest.

Representative of the ornamental hermit is an ancient "Father Francis" at Richard Hill's Hawkstone. Father Francis resides in a garden hermitage; a pithy poem on a wall captures the several moods:

Far from the busy scenes of life
Far from the world, its cares and strife,
In solitude more pleased to dwell
The hermit bids you to his cell;
Warns you sin's gilded baits to fly,
And calls you to prepare to die.

Equally pithy is the author's comment about the Father Francis character:

Father Francis continued to seem "about 90 years of age" [referring to contemporary descriptions] through successive editions of the [Hawkstone] guidebook. Nothing is known of Father Francis save that he had the secret of eternal age and only worked in the summer. There is some evidence, however, that Father Francis was from time to time replaced by a stuffed hermit.

Hawkstone was a model ornamental hermitage. Another source describes a momento mori in large letters in the recess and a table set out with skull and eyeglasses to suggest that the resident hermit has just stepped out for a moment. Another saying over the door -- "Procui O procui est Profani" ("Keep away, keep away, O uninitiated ones") -- is from Virgil's Aeneid.

Another Father Francis was resident at Woodhouse, while an ornamental hermit named Carolus resided at Tong Castle, Shropshire. Gilbert White's Shelbourne seems to have had a human hermit, but just to entertain at summer garden parties, where guests were in on the joke. Vauxhall Gardens also boasted a live hermit seated before "pasteboard surroundings," but a fortune-teller in false beard.

Charles Hamilton's Painshill (originally Payne's Hill) is representative of the era's architectural details but is also remembered for its famous advertisement for an ornamental hermit. An 1852 account describes the search:

The conditions were, that he had to continue in the hermitage seven years, where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his bed, a hassock for his pillow, and hour-glass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, food from the house, but never exchange a word with the servant. He was to wear a camlet robe, never to cut his beard or nails, nor ever to stray beyond the limits of the grounds. ...

The author traces the various versions of the search, concluding that the whole business may have been apocryphal.

Of decidedly more interest may be the hermitage and its architectural style, one of which was the root house. Primitive root houses have hardly survived, modeled after Sadeler's woodcuts or Thomas Wright's Badminton or the esoteric Horton House. Intentional hermitages of more solid construction are various: from druidic fantasies such as Queen Caroline's Merlins Cove, to the circle of eccentric poets and dilettantes at Shenstone and the melancholics at Hagley Park, to the horticultural antiquarian structures at Oldstone, Bear's Hut, Whitely Wood, and a dozen others.

The English landscape garden with its characteristic hermitage also appeared in what the author calls "Celtic lands." In (Northern) Ireland under the patronage of Mary Delaney, these included Kilronan  and Caledon. In Scotland, the better known hermitages are at Glenriddell (Friars Carse), frequented by poet Robert Burns, and at Dunkeld, popularized by James Macpherson's Ossian poems and visited by the Wordworths, J.M.W. Turner, and Felix Mendelssohn. 

Campbell concludes with the interesting speculation that garden gnomes are descendants of ornamental hermits. Though the author does not mention it, perhaps the St. Francis statues in gardens today echo ornamental hermits as well, even the popularity of Japanese jizos and buddhas. Are they part of a larger unconscious desire to invoke forest spirits or water sprites? But that is a different book.


The Hermit in the Garden is a trove of lore, examples summarily described on its every page with Campbell's wry humor and grace. As a bonus are appendices: "A Catalogue of Hermits," an essay on continental European ornamental hermits, plus a thorough bibliography and index. One may have wished for more illustrations, but many representative ones are included, and the author helpfully points to more on the Web. Here is the definitive survey on the phenomenon of English ornamental hermits for the indefinite future.