The Hermitage: Oddest of the English Garden Follies

The Hermitage: Oddest of the English Garden Follies

I am forever fascinated by the unusual structures designed and erected to add atmosphere to a Georgian Era landscape garden. I’ve written several blogs on the subject —which are listed with links in the Pemberley Library under “Landscape & Garden”— and will be writing more in the future. For this week, I am turning the focus on what is commonly viewed as the oddest of the various types of garden follies: The Hermitage.

As has been noted before, garden follies were designed to delight the eyes and typically served no significant purpose. That isn’t to say they universally lacked something worthwhile, as even an empty gazebo or pavilion would keep the rain off one’s head! In truth, the majority of garden follies did have a use, even if minor. Many were located on a rise or were themselves tall (such as towers) to allot a stunning view of the surrounds. Others included benches or tables and chairs for rest or to take refreshments. Monuments honored a historical event or noteworthy person while also being a stunning visual treat when strolling the grounds. There were even summerhouses and tiny cottages meant to be dwelt in for short periods of time.

That last example comes closest to the hermitage garden folly —in that it was meant to be lived in or appear to be lived in— but the hermitage was far removed from an elaborate, well-appointed cottage.

Representation of an ornamental hermit in Germany, by Johann Baptist Theobald Schmitt (1795)

THE HERMITAGE arose as a specialized garden folly in the 18th century, inspired by the mysticism and romanticism popular during the period. The naturalist movement of Jean Jacques Rousseau blended with the passion for mythical creatures and medieval legends, and surprisingly a slice of real history.

Stories of people living as a hermit in small, naturally created places (caves, grottoes) as well as dilapidated buildings or hastily erected structures using natural materials were fairly common and date to antiquity. Generally these notable hermits were religious men seeking solitude to commune with God. Others were servants of the local chapel or monastery, or the landowner, choosing to live a simple life in order to provide unbiased advise and service. Depending upon the situation, these true hermits were revered, and thus neither they nor their humble, rustic dwelling became objects for entertainment.

Yet, it was from these men that the so-called “garden hermit” or “ornamental hermit” trend arose on the estates of wealthy landowners during the 18th century. It was a desired novelty that fit well with the popularity of man-made grottoes and rockeries, which were designed with a natural appearance as if a centuries-old part of the landscape —a huge aspect of the Georgian Garden allure. While it may seem an extreme eccentricity (and indeed it was, as only the richest could afford such elaborate gardens or to pay a hermit), the trend wasn’t wholly without an honest inspiration. The increased focus on industrialism made wealthy men even more wealthy —so they had to do something with all that cash floating around— but also led to a hunger for quiet contemplation and meditation. A pristine garden evoking raw nature aided that hunger for peace and tranquility, and the presence of a hermit who had nothing to do but relax and enjoy the gorgeous area around him added to the sensations. First, of course, the hermit must have a place to live it, hence the creation of the hermitage.

Merlin’s Cave from John Rocque’s Plan of the Royal Gardens, 1754

Landscape architects created a wide array of hermitage styles. Often times the previously created grotto, pavilion, cave, or cottage served as the hermitage. In other instances the hermitage was a unique structure built specifically for a hermit. According to Gordon Campbell in The Hermit in the Garden (Oxford University Press, 2013), the first hermitage styled folly was designed in 1730 by the architect William Kent for George II’s consort, Queen Caroline, located on the site of the present-day Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. In 1736, Queen Caroline commissioned Merlin’s Cave, located in the Royal Gardens of Richmond. As far as I could ascertain after an admittedly quick search, neither of these hermitages housed an actual hermit.

Summer Hermitage design from Grotesque-Architecture by William Wright, 1767
Photo from Getty Images

In fact, depending upon the personal preference of the landowner, the plethora of erected hermitages in the subsequent decades did not universally contain a living, breathing hermit. What does appear to be universal is decor inside and outside of the hermitage indicating a person lived there, such as eating utensils, open books, personal effects like pipes and clothes. The point was to not only give the hermitage a “lived in” quality, but to imply the visitor startled the solitude-loving hermit, who hastily departed. In a few cases, such as the above mentioned Merlin’s Cave, wax, stuffed, wooden, or stone figures were placed inside. Rarer still were automatons capable of movement!

When a hermit was employed, the landowner provided a stipend in addition to room and board. The hermit dwelt for specific periods of time and would agree to the terms, which often included not bathing, shaving, or doing any extensive hygiene. Some were instructed not to engage with visitors, while others were paid extra to answer questions, act as a sage giving counsel, or to perform hermit-type tasks as if a living diorama. Advertisements for hermits were run, detailing the requirements, however it is an area steeped in legend and mystery. Precise records were not kept so it is unclear how prevalent was the existence of a hermit.

Records of the hermitages themselves are better known, however so many were built of natural materials that they have long since disappeared. On Thursday and Friday I will be sharing images and history of surviving examples of Georgian Era hermitages. Be sure to return for the rest of the story!




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