As Campbell cites from an advertisement referenced in Sir William Gell’s A Tour in the Lakes Made in 1797, “the hermit is never to leave the place, or hold conversation with anyone for seven years during which he is neither to wash himself or cleanse himself in any way whatever, but is to let his hair and nails both on hands and feet, grow as long as nature will permit them.”
While some gardeners might now throw in a gnome statue among their flowers and shrubberies, back in the 18th century wealthy estate owners were hiring real people to dress as druids, grow their hair long, and not wash for years.
These hired hermits would lodge in shacks, caves, and other hermitages constructed in a rustic manner in rambling gardens. It was a practice mostly found in England, although it made it up to Scotland and over to Ireland as well.
Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, recently published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome with Oxford University Press.
It’s the first book to delve into the history of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England. As Campbell explains in this video for the book:
“Recruiting a hermit wasn’t always easy. Sometimes they were agricultural workers, and they were dressed in a costume, often in a druid’s costume. There was no agreement on how druids dressed, but in some cases they wore what we would call a dunce’s cap.
It’s a most peculiar phenomenon, and understanding it is one of the reasons why I have written this book.”
How the live-in hermit came to be a fashionable touch to a splendid garden goes back to the Roman emperor Hadrian with his villa at Tivoli, which included a small lake with a structure in it built for one person to retreat.
When the ruins of this early hermitage were unearthed in the 16th century, it was suggested that Pope Pius IV build one for himself, which he did at the Casina Pio IV. Yet from here it gradually verged away from religious devotees isolating themselves for spiritual reflection to hermitting being an 18th century profession for those willing to put up with the stipulations.