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  • Barbra Davis

The Story of Garden Hermits

Garden hermit/ gnome

What in the world is a Garden Hermit??? Back in 18th century Britain many wealthy landowners “decorated” their formal gardens with a carefully chosen garden hermit. This was a random man who lived on your property and filled the role of what people of the day thought a hermit should be. By doing so, the rich added value to their property and spice to their social lives.

The job of a garden hermit, generally, was to stop bathing, never shave or cut his hair, fingernails, and toenails, and spend his days sitting or walking around in the garden doing nothing but looking like a stereotypical hermit. Some were even asked to recite poetry or interact with visitors. Their basic value was in how much they impressed and entertained guests.

Most were housed in underground caves, grottos, or other “hermitages,” and they were often supplied with props to enhance their role. Basically, they were garden decorations, live-action statues who remained on display for a contracted amount of time. Often they were asked to dress like druids and act like Merlin from the King Arthur tales. It was a practice mostly found in England, although it was also popular in a few places in Scotland and Ireland. And yes, there were “pretenders” even back then – those who couldn’t afford to actually employ a hermit. They would often set up a cottage so it looked like a hermit either just left or would soon arrive.

Where did the idea start? According to tradition, the idea of a hermitage to be used as a private retreat began at the Tivoli villa of Roman emperor Hadrian in the second century AD. Apparently, Hadrian asked builders to create a small lake to surround a tiny structure just right for one person. It apparently served as a retreat for the Emperor or special guests. When the ruins were unearthed in the 16th century, Pope Pius IV liked the idea and had one built for himself. During the 18th century the religious aspect of the retreats was replaced with a more “intellectual” view, and the garden hermit was born.

Why did it start? For wealthy families of the time, having a huge house and outbuildings with lavishly landscaped grounds was a necessity. But many longed to further impress their visitors with something unique and obviously expensive. For those who could afford one, a hermit fit the bill. Gradually, the garden hermit became equated with extreme wealth and good taste.

People of the day viewed a solitary life, reserved for study and introspection, as a mark of intelligence. So having a man who typified the concept made the land owner appear to also possess intelligence, because he had the foresight to hire one. Stories of magicians and druids were also quite popular, so the hermits were often dressed in that fashion.

The trend in British gardens during that period of time was toward a more naturalistic look, as opposed to the very ornate and formal gardens found in France and other European nations. This relaxed approach favored winding paths, romantic-looking lakes and rustic outbuildings. It’s easy to see how a picturesque hermitage, maybe even one created out of gnarled tree roots, would add to the overall effect. The next logical step was to add an actual hermit, even though the men hired for the position weren’t really hermits.

How it worked Garden hermits, or “ornamental hermits,” were often sought using newspaper ads or postings in local establishments. In the ads the general terms of the contract were given. Most often the length of service was 7 years. The job required the applicant to live austerely in a small “hermitage” on the estate garden for that entire time. They were forbidden to wash their hair, cut their nails, leave the grounds or talk to the servants.

In return for their service, hermits were provided with the basics: food, water, clothes and a bed (often made of hay). Sometimes they also were given “props” like a Bible, reading glasses, a “Merlin” hat, a skull, etc. to help them play their role. At the end of his agreed upon term, the hermit received a generous payment (often several hundred pounds), which was enough that he would never have to work again. However, if the hermit left before the agreed upon term ended, he received nothing.

Most of them were required to make regular appearances in the garden, dressed in appropriate clothing, when the master had guests. Some employers asked their hermits not to wear shoes, some wanted them to entertain party guests with poetry or to serve wine. It might seem whimsical, but it amounted to indentured servitude.

You would think many men would be happy to apply for a job with such a generous pay-off, but finding a willing hermit wasn’t easy, and many quit very early in the contract. For them, to willingly go nearly a decade without a bath, haircut or decent clothing, was too much to endure. But for those who stayed, life was pretty secure.

For the employer, the hermit’s presence usually justified his large paycheck. Just as a nobleman of the time might display a prized animal or an expensive sword, he would surely have been proud to display an ornamental garden hermit to impress the elite of his area.

Evolution Some families, failing to find a suitable live hermit, replaced him with a mechanical “automaton” that apparently moved and spoke (with the assistance of another servant). In all, the fad of garden hermits lasted for about two hundred years. By then the live hermit was being replaced by ceramic statues of garden gnomes and other creatures, many of which are still the fashion in gardens to this day.

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