Ornamental Hermits of Eccentric Modern England
Charles P. Weaver suggests, in his book Hermits in English Literature, that the demise of eremitism in England after King Henry VIII's suppression of monasteries, monks, nuns, and hermits, left a void in English culture and imagination after so many centuries of cultivating the imagery and inspiration of the hermit.
After the turmoil of religious and civil warfare in seventeenth-century England, a maudlin literature arose by the eighteenth century that featured hermits and other eccentric characters: a class of fiction, drama and poetry that fell significantly short of literary seriousness. This literary episode is little pursued and largely ignored today. Not until the nineteenth-century romantic poets led by Wordsworth was the image of the hermit and the solitary revived with a sense of genuine identification and value, presented in the context of nature, emotion, and antiquarianism.
But an unusual if short-lived and not extensive fad arose in eighteenth-century England. Men of eccentric bent and material substance took up the practice of installing on the grounds of their estates an "ornamental hermit." An ornamental hermit was not a real hermit, as the name suggests. An ornamental hermit was a man employed by the estate-owner to reside in a contrived hermitage for a period of time and make scheduled appearances on the grounds to the pleasure of the employer and to be seen and marveled at by guests.
In fact there were not many ornamental hermits, but they were brought especially to attention in the twentieth century British writer, poet and essayist Edith Sitwell, author of the intriguing 1933 book English Eccentrics. Sitwell was not a bit less eccentric than the many characters she describes in her panoply of strange people spanning several centuries of modern Englanish history.
In chapter two, "Ancients and Ornamental Hermits," Sitwell describes, in the first part of the chapter, men of reputed great age in seventeenth to nineteenth-century England. In the second part of the chapter Sitwell describes ornamental hermits. Chapter six relates the life and times of Captain Philip Thicknesse, who became an ornamental hermit late in life, and wrote,
The duplicity of Mankind, and satiety of enjoyments all tend to show 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 imaginary anchorite.
This passage succinctly describes the fashion. Writing when he was employed as an ornamental hermit, Thicknesse can conclude:
I have obtained that which every man aims at but few acquire; solitude and retirement.
Alas, this was only temporary employment for the rambunctious Captain Thicknesse, for St. Catherine's Hermitage, near Bath, where he resided, was put up for sale, ending this short-lived career. Thicknesse went on to a life of exaggerated eccentricities, not at all becoming of a real hermit but apparently not out of character for an ornamental one.
Sitwell's ornamental hermits
Sitwell derives her information about ornamental hermits from an obscure self-published 1866 book by John Timbs entitled English Eccentrics and Eccentricities. The accounts of nine ornamental hermits (not including Philip Thicknesse, who wrote memoirs) is derived from Timbs' gleaning of newspaper and serial publications of the time, even more obscure than his book. Similar accounts of ornamental hermits are included in the more recent 2002 book, Pelican in the Wilderness, by Isabel Colegate. However, Colegate cites different secondary sources and not Timbs. As Colegate's quotations and summaries of ornamental hermits are essentially the same as Sitwell's (but with no mention of Sitwell), there is nothing added to the latter's account.
Sitwell's second chapter makes its smooth transition from "ancients" to ornamental hermits due to the fact that ornamental hermits were expected to project a particular physical appearance, the most obvious being age.
Certain noblemen and country squires were advertising for Ornamental Hermits. 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.
Brief or detailed descriptions of eight ornamental hermits follow. Sitwell makes the tacit and unwritten distinction between real and ornamental in identifying a higher spiritual or psychological motive to the real and historical hermit, versus the ornamental or artificial hermits she describes. Some are properly recluses and not hermits. In the end, the characters she describe are properly "eccentrics."
The most famous employer of an ornamental hermit was Charles Hamilton. Here is an account as quoted from Timbs.
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 hermitage was neither well designed or constructed. The general terms of the contract were spelled out in the advertisement. The hermit must
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.
Hamilton's advertisement concludes with the condition that if the man so employed could last seven years he would receive the sum of seven hundred pounds, otherwise not a penny. The first ornamental hermit lasted a full three weeks. Colegate's source adds that he was last spotted at the local pub. Nothing more is known of Hamilton's luck or successors to his first hermit.
John Timbs himself advertised for an ornamental hermit. Timbs, of Preston, Lancashire, offered a remuneration of fifty pounds a year for life for seven years of service if the applicant could meet certain conditions. The hermit would have to, as the advertisement stated, "live for seven years underground without cutting his hair, beard, toe-nails, or fingernails."
The underground quarters were described by Timbs as "very commodious," including a cold bath, a chamber organ, as many books as the hermit wished, and provisions from Timbs' own table. Sitwell notes that the ornamental hermit resided for four years, sight unseen. "It is a little difficult to guess what pleasure his employer can have got out of the matter," concludes Sitwell.
In the January 11, 1810 edition of the Courier appeared an advertisement by a potential ornamental hermit seeking employment:
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 will be given, and all other particulars, will be duly attended.
Apparently a gratuity or salary was understood to be part of an ornamental hermit's arrangement. Whether the applicant received a response is not known.
A section of the April 1830 edition of Blackwood's Magazine, called "Noctes Ambrosianae," included a note by Christopher North about the editor of a certain magazine. The editor, reads the note, had been
for fourteen years hermit to Lord Hill's father, and sat in a cave in that worthy baronet's grounds with an hour-glass in his hand, and a beard belonging to an old goat, from sunrise to sunset, with orders to accept no half-crowns from visitors, but to behave like Giordano Bruno.
Presumably Lord North's father as hermit would not, however, have spoken like Bruno, or spoken at all. But the ornamental hermit had been mentioned in an earlier source.
In an 1810 issue of Notes and Queries, a correspondent refers to Lord Hill's father as Richard Hill of Hawkstone, Shropshire. The correspondent relates that on a visit to the Hill property,
he had been shown the hermitage there, inhabited by a stuffed figure dressed in the proper professional robe of an Ornamental Hermit, the whole scene being illuminated by the dimmest of lights.
Elisabeth Colegate adds to this anecdote that Hill had secured the services of a certain Father Francis. Was Fr. Francis the editor referred to in the notice twenty years later? About Fr. Francis, Colegate notes from her source:
He was venerable and bearded and described as ninety in successive editions of the guidebook over the years, and when death caught up with him in the end no subsequent applicant could match him. At one time his place was taken by an automaton, which apparently both moved and spoke. Sir Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead, on one of the tours of the countryside which he undertook at the time of the Napoleonic wars, when travel abroad was difficult, was critical: "The face is natural enough, the figure stiff and not well managed. The effect would be infinitely better if the door were placed at the angle of the wall and not opposite you. The passenger would then come upon St. [sic] Francis by surprise, whereas the ringing of the bell and door opening into a building quite dark within renders the effect less natural."
Such was the eccentric English interest in ornamental hermits, even in "ornamental "ornamental hermits.
Other Sitwell hermits
Sitwell's other hermits are not employees of an estate lord or gentlemen and therefore do not fit the conventional ornamental hermit image. They are not hermits as such nor ornamental hermits. More properly they are recluses or just plain eccentrics.
Among them is one who lived in the village of Newton Burgsland, near Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire, in the 1850s and early 1860s.
He was his own master, and I regret to say, lived comfortably, enjoyed a good dinner, a glass of beer, and a pipe; yet, in spite of these blots on his character as a hermit, he claimed that he was entitled to the name, as "True Hermits, throughout the ages, have been abettors of freedom;" and it must be said that he conformed to the hermit ideal in sporting a very venerable appearance, and a long white beard.
The unnamed hermit's chief eccentricity -- if the above not be enough -- was to own twenty hats and twelve suits to which he assigned emblems, sayings, and mottoes, so that wearing them about the village he would display statements such as "Without money, without friends, without credit" or "Blow the flames of freedom with God's word of truth" or "The toils of industry are sweet; a wise people lives at peace." These sayings he combined with pithier sayings on colored ribbons, such as "Bless feed," "Good allowance," and "Well clothed." The man's garden was likewise a maze of extensive signage.
Another eccentric Sitwell describes is Matthew Robinson (1712-1800), who became Lord Rokeby. Robinson was the son of a minor official under King George II. His particular eccentricity was to be submerged in a bath or spa as many hours as possible, even when receiving guests. He was known to speak voluminously all sorts of advice; Sitwell could have compared him to a garrulous Simon Stylites, except that Lord Rokeby was not expostulating from atop a high, dry, sandy pillar but in a cold and watery tub. Lord Rokeby did share with ornamental hermits of convention a long beard and long hair. Otherwise, he clearly qualifies as an eccentric but not a hermit.
Sitwell also mentions as ornamental hermits two people who are recluses, not hermits, and probably not mentally stable ones, either. One is a Celestina Collins, who lived in St. Peter's Street, Coventry, and is only noteworthy for having shared her solitary cottage with farmyard animals. The second was a nineteenth century man who was interviewed by a correspondent of the Wolverhampton Chronicle. The correspondent repeats the frequent criticism against hermits, showing how the man lived with rats, darkness, and lack of hygiene. "How much it is to be regretted," writes the correspondent, "that a man as gifted as this hermit is known to be should spend his days in dirt and seclusion."
A modern ornamental hermit
A notice appeared in the spring of 2002 concerning Painshill Park, the estate of Charles Hamilton mentioned above, and the return of an ornamental hermit for a limited time. Here was part of the notice on a web site entitled "24 Hour Museum":
The 18th century tradition of housing a human pet at the bottom of your garden to impress the neighbours is set to return. Artist David Blandy is preparing to seal himself off from the outside world at Painshill Park in Surrey.
From Sunday May 30 to June 13 Blandy will reside in a house with similar proportions to a rabbit hutch.
Painshill's original hermitage is being resurrected and built to the same specifications. At a minuscule two metres (six and a half feet) high by five metres (16 feet) across, it will prove just as cosy.
Artist David Blandy was approached by the Danielle Arnaud Gallery to produce a piece of work in collaboration with the Museum of Garden History in London.
The concept of the ornamental hermit is here reversed. Blandy himself proposed the revival of an ornamental hermit on the Painshill grounds as a form of living art. A spokesperson for the estate further explained that Blandy's motive was in part a critique of the lack of social and interpersonal relations in the contemporary world. The spokesperson said that Blandy "does think that people today have become very much hermitised, they tend to stay in and not venture out of their homes." According to the spokesperson, Blandy's voluntary incarceration can be seen as a comment on our insular society.
Perhaps the stuffed automaton that substituted for an ornamental hermit in the example above is rivaled by the contemporary ornamental hermit at Painshill:
Though not in a glass box, Blandy will strive to be more entertaining than a starving American and visitors will be able to observe his lonesome antics.
Dressed as a Buddhist Shaolin monk, he will go barefoot and has even grown his hair long.
Talking is not permitted but food will be brought to him by a specially dressed costumed character and his only liquid refreshment will be a pitcher of water.
To pass the time 1970s soul music will be played on a portable player and Blandy will produce a comic diary of his friendless confinement.
The image of the ornamental hermit is well established in the popular imagination, though now elastic enough to be identified with "eccentric." For example, a recent American book with the title The Ornamental Hermit: People and Places of the New West by Robert Murray Davis, has nothing to do with historical ornamental hermits but is just a label applied to eccentric personalities and characters.
And historical ornamental hermits can be lampooned by shows like the Painshill recreation mentioned above.
In contrast, Edith Sitwell's assembly of eccentrics shows that true hermits would not countenance to be employed as actors or phony hermits. Although Sitwell blurred the lines somewhat, clearly the psychological or spiritual motive of true eremitism must always be distinguished from the motives of the recluse and the eccentric. Sitwell's catalog of ornamental hermits and the use and abuse of ornamental hermits ever since serves to demonstrate this point.
Edith Sitwell. The English Eccentrics. London: Faber & Faber, 1933;
London: Zephyr Books, 1947; London: D. Dobson,1950; New York: Vanguard Press, 1957;
London: Arrow Books, 1960; Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971; London: Pallas Athene,
Isabel Colegate. A Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaries, and Recluses. London: Harper-Collins, 2002; Washington: Counterpoint, 2002.
On the recreation of the ornamental hermit at Painshill Park, see http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/nwh/ART21222.html.