Lawn Ornaments, Garden Furniture, and Hermits

As 19th century tourists meandered about the English countrysides in search of the picturesque, guidebooks in hand as they viewed scenic vistas and visited stately homes surrounded by artfully planned “natural” landscapes, they might pause to admire a grotto here, a ruined temple there, an obelisk raised on an artificial hill…or they might stop to check out the resident hermit.

Yes, really.

Just as the wealthy landowners of the 18th century rebuilt their houses into magnificent country seats, so they hired landscape gardeners to design what was really an outdoor set of “rooms”. All those fake ruins and follies and grottoes and medieval herb gardens and Chinese bridges and sylvan groves and statue gardens were the outdoor equivalent of the libraries, music rooms, dining rooms, drawing rooms, and salons indoors—spaces made to impress, to inspire admiration. The outdoor features, beside being “picturesque”, also carried picturesque meanings: a ruined temple symbolized man’s creations overtaken by the forces of nature, for example. And if a ruined temple or nymph’s grotto was “interesting”, how much more so would be if it contained a resident?

But since authentic nymphs were not always easy to find, some wealthy landowners built hermitages—picturesque (of course) dwellings which would be occupied by hermits. And just as ruins had a meaning, so too did hermitages–they symbolized the idea of man’s return to nature.

Hermitages ranged from the very rustic–a single room, perhaps made out of wattle and thatch woven into the roots of an overturned tree–to the rather grand–a temple or miniature cathedral (the image above is of the hermitage at Frogmore, from an 1823 issue of Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts). The hermits themselves differed as well. Some were men (sorry, no female hermits–just think of the scandal!) genuinely interested in living a secluded, humble life dedicated to work and prayer…while others were cheerful types willing to appear suitably ragged and “natural” in order to entertain his lordship’s guests out for a stroll in the grounds.

Some landowners had very specific ideas on how their hermits should behave, demanding their potential hermits sign contracts stating that they weren’t to speak, or to cut their hair or toenails. Others were more relaxed and invited their resident hermits to mingle with guests as a form of rustic entertainment.

So what do you think? Is there a spare garden shed in your yard? Why not be 19th century and install a hermit in it?




Lawn Ornaments, Garden Furniture, and Hermits — 7 Comments

    • 🙂 I think a hermit would make a great suspect in an historical murder mystery set on a large estate: “Him–the guy with the beard and long toenails–he did it!”

    • Even in the 19th century, it was hard to find someone to stick at it. One place had a hermit that would go to the pub to drink, and ended up putting in a figure of a hermit.

  1. I know a dozen writers, at least, who’d raise their hands for this job. Being left totally alone, shunned even, as they put pen to paper for however long it takes to finish the book. That’s what all those memes on Facebook are about. Would you live here for a year for $XXXX? If it meant I could finish the book yes I would. I’d even dress as a man if required and put in a couple of public appearances if they left me alone the rest of the time. And fed me.

    I hear CampCon writers retreat calling my name.

    • You took the words right out of my, er, keyboard. I’d even go along with not cutting my hair or toenails—which, as it stands, wouldn’t be too far off from my current reality.

      • Hmmm. I haven’t cut my hair in fifty years. I do cut my toenails, but my two pairs of shoes are so old and ratty that surely nobody would notice.