February 7, 2014 6:10 pm

Why the hermit can be the perfect garden ornament

‘Landscape with a Hermit’ (1742), by Francois Boucher©Bridgeman Art

Come and live at the bottom of the garden and be my Valentine . . . you do not have to be a fairy but you have to be willing to live on your own. It ought not to be too difficult. Businesses and big charities already run rural away-days for their directors. Many of us have recently been isolated in the flooded British countryside. Why not become a full-time hermit and revive an ancient fashion in landscape design?

Hermits once enjoyed a hundred years of fashion in the garden, drawing to a close in the 1830s. The dramatist Tom Stoppard then brought them back into the limelight of London’s West End. In 1993 his admired play, Arcadia, included the proposal that a hermitage should be built in the gardens of fictional Sidley Hall in Derbyshire. The landscape designer, Mr Noakes, suggests that a candidate could be found by advertising in the newspaper. “But surely,” his patroness Lady Croom replies, “a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence.”

In the absence of FT readers, the job went to Septimus, the tutor of the household. Research by the play’s modern garden historian, Hannah Jarvis, later discovers that he died in the hermitage “hoary as Job and meagre as a cabbage-stalk”, surrounded by scribbled papers about the end of the world. The genius of the age of Reason, she thought, had perished in the Romantic era. Stoppard’s views of the truth about the past and our attempts to rediscover it left the reasons for his retreat unstated. I think they are related to a moment of passion offstage.

Since Arcadia, there have been hermit events. In 2005, London Zoo hosted a weekend in which selected volunteers were to live on Bear Mountain like any other mammal. I think of them as a subspecies, group-hermits.

Eight were chosen, with a dress code of fig leaves, but underclothes were to be worn too. One type of animal activity was strictly banned and it was rather tame that the humans could return home each night. One of them, a trainee vet from Cambridge, even brought pocket Scrabble to help pass the time.

In June 2004, a hermit had already been sought for the historic park of Painshill in Surrey. The appointee, an artist, grew his hair long in preparation, and in our multicultural age, arrived dressed as a Buddhist monk. He wished to show the isolation of modern life inside a lonely house and home. In 2002, Staffordshire Council then advertised for a hermit to live for a September weekend in a historic grotto at Shugborough. The wages offered were £600 and the hermit was supposed to assist in a project called “Solitude”. This project was a retort to our modern emphasis on “self-improvement”.

The restored hermitage at Painshill in Surrey©Painshill Park Trust

The restored hermitage at Painshill in Surrey

Garden hermits have always been a reproach to luxury and a fascination for voyeurs. They are back in the news because their history has just been set out brilliantly by the distinguished historian, Gordon Campbell.

He wrote his book, he explains, while lodged in a high tower at Leicester university, but he is also known for his educational help to distressed war-zones in the Arabic-speaking world. He shows fine wit and excellent learning. The first chapters are immensely enjoyable before the need to list candidates gets the upper hand. Campbell even collects early newspaper adverts, which appealed for solitary volunteers. He knows of at least six, one of which he traces brilliantly to Atherton Hall near Bolton in Lancashire. The advertiser was offering “£50 a year for life” to anyone who would live for “seven years underground, without seeing anything human”. He must let his hair and his nails grow, but he would be allowed books and a “chamber organ” and could ring a bell for any “convenience” he wanted.

A candidate actually lived in this way for four years. Remarkably, research in 2003 then turned up a parallel advertisement from a young man who was wanting to “retire from the world and live as a hermit in some convenient spot in England”. He was seeking a “gentleman” to take him on. Despite Stoppard, hermits read newspapers too.

Why do these advertisements have such a strange appeal? They are job offers for and by dropouts who have had enough of the world and its bother. The bother is no less nowadays. Those of you most bothered by it might like to house a human reminder that life can be simple and that vanities do not need to prevail. A hermitage will need planning permission and a hermit will be subject to full council tax. As the vile student loan repayments take effect, there will be no shortage of willing candidates. London Zoo’s human animals already included an undergraduate from Cambridge. To intrigue your friends and garden visitors you can display a graduate going “back to nature” in the absence of other worthwhile paid work.

Hermitages come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they have evoked Adam’s original hut, whose existence in the Garden of Eden was postulated by readers of scripture.

At Hawkstone in Shropshire the 'hermit' was sometimes an automaton©English Heritage

At Hawkstone in Shropshire the 'hermit' was sometimes an automaton

In Russia, Catherine the Great’s bolt-hole of a hermitage endured to become the great museum in St Petersburg. In the early 18th century, Louis XIV decided to build yet another great garden at Marly, a few miles north of Versailles. Wits described Marly as his “hermitage”, but it soon had waterworks and a plan as grand as anything in the Versailles palace’s grounds. At Amboise, a French cardinal set a hermitage at one end of a long canal and a “maison blanche” in splendour at the other. Perhaps this proto-White House was meant to contrast luxury and the simple hermit’s life. London’s parks need to consider their historic options too. Until the 1850s there was a hermit in a grotto in London’s pleasure gardens at Vauxhall. He wore a false beard and told fortunes. His grotto has now been demolished and as Campbell well observes, “buildings on the site now include the headquarters of MI6”.

Hermitages have had some very famous admirers: Rousseau in France, Jefferson in America and the Hellfire Club in England, who used to enjoy ladies in their hermitage’s mock-cells. Unlike me, Campbell thinks there were “hermits in the garden” in the age of classical Rome. There were Cynics in tubs, but not as garden-features. He is inclined to include root houses but they are sometimes quite different. He refers to the recent root house built by the architectural historian Gervase Jackson-Stops in Northamptonshire, but the house was not a hermitage. It was meant to show the early beginnings of architecture from roots and trees. The owner also referred to this root house and its pair as “Sodom and Gomorrah”.

Above all, I enjoy differing with Campbell about the ancestry of the garden gnome. Hermits are surely not responsible for it. Hermits have to renounce the world and its pomp in order to be hermits. They are gaunt, unclipped and a warning to us all. The making of the gnome is quite different. Gnomes are cheery chappies, tediously at one with their bourgeois idea of life. They are brashly coloured, unlike hermits who adopt “designer poverty”. Hermits pine away in caves, whereas gnomes appear fishing merrily by front gardens’ ponds. Campbell aptly observes that in the golden age of Georgian hermitages there was a clear gender issue. There were no known female hermits. However, female gnomes now star in Flemish television’s hit cartoon programme Plop the Gnome.

 

Unlike gnomes, hermits never lived in Zurich. Unlike hermits, gnomes never lived in Greece. I cannot imagine gnomes in Paris’s quartier Latin, some of whose streets are named after hermit-saints. Unlike gnomes, let alone pixies, hermits look back to a former age of sainthood, when grubby dropouts represented an ideal of spiritual perfection across the Christian world. When they were revived as garden features, they had lost this spell, especially in Anglican England. Unlike a garden gnome, a garden hermit has to seem a bit passé. In the next century, who, then, will be the next group of former gurus to be kept alive as garden ornaments? My money is on macroeconomists. They will be set up in clusters at the bottom of big gardens, shown swapping credit in a perfectly rational market, one limited to the digital screens in their huts.

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‘The Hermit in the Garden’, by Gordon Campbell (Oxford University Press, RRP£16.99)

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Letter in response to this column:

Time for a revival of a great eccentric / From Ms Judith Martin

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