What often happens in dire economic times is that the rich get richer and the poor poorer.

And while there are loads of ludicrously wealthy people around with mink lined swimming pools, there are also scores of people of a certain age, well funded with life’s experience, on the job scrap heap.

There could be no better time to revive the hermitage as a garden design concept.

 

Of course hermits have played a contemplative role within religious life for millennia, but in the second half of the 18th century no English landscape garden was complete without a hermitage. Wealthy estate owners would pay imitation hermits to inhabit their properties as living garden decorations and entertainments. At Painshill the Hamilton family famously advertised for a hermit.

The hermitage fitted the arcadian dream and gave a sense, but just a sense, of retreat from frivolity. If unable to afford a live one, less affluent landowners made do with a waxworks figure. However, ES Harwood  in ‘Luxurious Hermits’ (2000) states that  ‘The ability to maintain a hermit was both an assertion of material well-being, and the expression of an apotropaic allegiance to a staunchly anti-materialist system of values.’ Effectively having your cake and eating it !!! So what’s new?

What does the hermitage offer the incumbent? A home of sorts. Admittedly it might not appeal to many. The hermitage at Hagley Park , Worcestershire, was ‘in a sequestered spot, built chiefly of roots and mosses and containing only a bench, with lines from Il penseroso of Milton above it.’  No visual record survives. Presumably it collapsed.

 

By comparison Queen Caroline’s hermitage at Kew, built by Charles Bridgeman, seems to have been a more substantial affair.

So where are the hermitages being built today? You tell me!

 

Of course we had Sam Youd’s concept for the Hermit’s grotto at Tatton in 2009 where the applicant had to be silent, smelly and ill kempt.

But shows are just shows and it doesn’t seem to have sparked off very much of a following.

Does HRH have one at Highgrove? He has after all plenty of tree roots in his stumpery and the philosophical wackiness to go with it!

I can think of at least one garden within striking distance of Bristol where the opportunity to convert a dismal ruin to fulfil this very social and philosophical function has been completely missed, to that garden’s very great detriment.

What should we expect of today’s landscape hermit? Well, for my part, I am not doing smelly. The applicant for my hermitage should at least be clean. I am also not expecting total silence. I mean, if the 18th century ones ‘entertained’ I think it must have involved speech – looking at some ill kempt figure crouching in a dark hole is not exactly a hoot.  

As you see from this William Kent drawing there is something of the Lord Bountiful about the whole concept, with the figure kneeling  to the left.

And I certainly think that in return for a few kitchen scraps the incumbent could at least offer an eternal truth or two, the odd abstruse philosophical point that I could leave with and ponder on for the rest of the day.

I think  I do enviseage a figure like Brian, the lugubrious gardener, at Jamie Oliver’s palatial Essex spread, given to uttering various, softly spoken, Delphic riddles.

Yes, I can quite see myself checking in with Mr hermit each day to see what his preoccupations were and reporting back to Mrs W:

  ‘ Brian came out with a good one today….’

Oh! In case the Il penseroso quote did not come directly to mind it is:
“And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The hairy gown and mossy cell
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every star that heav’n doth show,
And every herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain.
These pleasures, Melancholy, give,
And I with thee will choose to live”

Sounds fab! Maybe I’ll just do the job myself!

R

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