A  Herm.

No I am not clearing my throat! But there is certainly some hesitation involved since I admit that this word, herm, was completely new to me. I came across it while reading a book which we were reviewing. Sadly there was no glossary to the book, but googling, I discovered that herms are classical garden statues and even more importantly they are very narrow statues, virtually a head on a pillar. Well you learn something new every day.

As I researched this, however, something was coming back to me. I may not have known the term, but I had encountered a herm before! I grew up at Kew and there was a load of them set into the depth of the hedges, at the end of the Palm House. I recall standing there as a child and looking at these oddly shaped stone people lurking in the hedges. I couldn’t really get it at all!

So what are they all about? I mentioned them to a friend. She laughed and said ‘No bodies, so no ‘bits’, hence Hermaphrodite.’ Well, she is always refreshingly basic! Convincing? No, in fact because delving further I find they were actually named for Hermes who was the messenger of the gods and they did indeed send out a message. In ancient Greece they were used as boundary markers on roads and borders –this makes their use within a hedge at Kew singularly appropriate.

In fact my friend was completely incorrect. Hermes was a phallic god and so although bodiless they did have a phallus positioned rather bizarrely on the squared off pillar, but at an appropriate height. It was considered good luck to rub this or anoint it with olive oil!

Moving swiftly on, in later times this somewhat crude marker, surmounted by the head of Hermes, became transformed into an architectural feature supporting any notable person’s head and shoulders, that could be employed as a post to support balustrades and railings. Commonly used in sixteenth century Italian architecture, they were later used when classical references were required in the grander eighteenth century landscapes as at Chiswick House.

Here at the Hearst Mansion of San Simeon they are rather outre lighting fixtures!

How would we use herms today? Well we are keener on structure and atmosphere than we used to be. This makes the simple, classical style particularly relevant as we flee screaming from an excess of planterlyness. They would be at home in association with Georgian or Italiannate atmospheres you wanted to create.

Elegance ‘personnified’, they take up very little space and are cool to the point of minimalist. Space and distance in the landscape often benefits from emphasis and herms could usefully represent integers along the perimeter of the space. As you can see they look sensational in association with evergreens

Imagine a room of yew containing nothing with herms in the hedges. What exactly would it feel like to stand in the centre of that space-kinda spooky I imagine. Well people are looking for more challenging atmospheres in their gardens today!

Are they expensive –yes I guess so – the sort of thing you would see at an antique shop. But in your local garden centre? Well, possibly not! Do they have to be classical? Perhaps it is time for the herm to be re-interpreted in a modern way. At The Garden Of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland this cluster of sculptures suggests how, with its sensory symbols.

This could be an interesting investment piece from a modern sculptor such as Angela Holmes.

In fact the idea could be taken further and the sensory symbols combined with sensory plants. The scent garden would have noses, the hearing garden ears etc – its my idea, so if any one steals it I will know!

But could the same iconic image be made even cheaper and simpler? Surely this is a modern herm at the Garden of Cosmic Speculation and it looks mighty like a telegraph pole painted red.

Time to resurrect the Herm as statement garden art!

Robert

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