(Roughly) Daily

“Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god”*…

Johann Baptist Schmitt, The Hermit in Flottbeck, 1795 (source)

… and, whichever, rich 18th century British landowners wanted one. As Shoshi Parks explains, they hired men who agreed to live in isolation on their estates for as long as seven years…

The Honorable Charles Hamilton, an 18th-century British aristocrat and member of Parliament, was explicit in his advertisement. The ornamental hermit he was recruiting to live in the sprawling gardens at his Painshill estate in Cobham, England, must be silent, never speaking to the servants who brought him his daily meals. He must wear a goat’s hair robe and never cut his hair, nails or beard. Shoes were out of the question.

If and only if the hermit fulfilled the terms of his contract, living in solitary contemplation without stepping foot outside of the estate for seven years, he would be rewarded with £500 to £700 (around $95,000 to $130,000 today). Mr. Remington (first name unknown), the man hired to fill the role, lasted just a fraction of that time. Three weeks after arriving, he was discovered drinking at a local pub—or so the legend goes.

Remington was one of a handful of men to cash in on—or, in his case, fail to cash in on—England’s 18th-century ornamental hermit craze. The short-lived trend, which peaked between roughly 1727 and 1830, was one of the most memorable to come out of the era’s shift from perfectly pruned, geometrically aligned gardens to wild, untamed ones in which “the irregularities and asymmetry of nature were charmingly inspirational,” says Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, a landscape architect and the author of English Garden Eccentrics: Three Hundred Years of Extraordinary Groves, Burrowings, Mountains and Menageries.

Aristocrats outfitted their new landscape gardens with unexpected, whimsical elements like caves, mountains, aviaries and menageries. But the hermitage, a secluded retreat for a real or imagined hermit that could look like anything from a grotto to a treehouse, eclipsed them all. “By 1750, if you only put in one structure in your garden, it would have been a hermitage,” says Edward S. Harwood, an art historian at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

Hermits, or individuals who withdraw from society to focus on spiritual, philosophical or intellectual pursuits, have served as a source of mystical power and curiosity for much of human history. Paul of Thebes and Anthony of Egypt, both saints born in the third century, are widely considered the first Christian hermits. Some early hermits lived in complete seclusion, while others were regarded as oracles whose access to the divine could provide ordinary Christians with insight, prophecies and medical cures, says Robin Darling Young, a historian at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

By the Middle Ages, “hermits were thick on the ground,” says Harwood. Famous medieval figures who lived at least part of their lives in isolated introspection include Pope Celestine V, who resided in a cave before assuming leadership of the church in 1294, and the 14th-century anchoress Julian of Norwich, who wrote the oldest surviving English language text known to be authored by a woman. But the one-two punch of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, which delegitimized the monastic and ascetic traditions to which many hermits belonged, and the 17th- and 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, which favored scientific reason over spiritual learning, “largely eliminated” the practice as a form of religious devotion, says Darling Young.

During England’s Georgian period, which spanned 1714 to 1830, a new form of hermeticism took shape. Combining Enlightenment ideals with more traditional elements of a reclusive lifestyle, the ornamental hermit “became a representation of the aspiration to the simple life, the life of rural retirement characterized by philosophical and scientific curiosity,” writes historian Gordon Campbell in The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome. These individuals—whether real or imagined—resided in garden hermitages, structures “predominantly used as architectural feature[s] to draw the eye in the landscape,” notes the United Kingdom’s National Trust

More on the remarkable practice of using real people as garden decorations: “Ornamental Hermits Were 18th-Century England’s Must-Have Garden Accessory,” from @smithsonian.

* Aristotle


As we get away from it all, we might recall that it was on this date in 1975 that labor leader James “Jimmy” Hoffa disappeared from the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, at about 2:30 p.m. He was never seen nor heard from again (and was declared dead on July 30, 1982). While it is generally believed that he was murdered by the Mafia, with whom he worked closely as leader of the Teamsters Union, his legacy and the circumstances of his disappearance continue to stir debate.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 30, 2023 at 1:00 am

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