The Indecent Story of the Ornamental Hermit: The Man Hired to Adorn an English Garden
The antecedents of garden gnomes is that the ornamental hermits were hired to dress as druids and give a magic and melancholic touch to the gardens of the English nobility.
History is full of hundreds of men who fade into the margins of its annals. In all centuries there have been apocryphal figures that wandered gardens and which nobody spoke of or wrote about… And that is where they best remain. Among them there have always been hermits: solitary and wild men whom nature appears to have adopted in an endearing way; but among those men, like the vassals of a civilization that enslaves, are ornamental hermits. And they are just as they sound, decorative hermits to beautify dwellings.
This extravagant idea emerged toward the end of the 18th century in England, where even the climate was the subject of civilizing efforts. The ornamental hermit was a fashion among the nobility and the country gentry, who believed that the hermit was essential to complement the perfect English garden. The figure was usually one of an old man hired by millionaire landowners to appear like a druid and add a touch of “magic” to the land they wanted to lease. They were housed in caves, shacks and other dwellings rustically built in some picturesque corner of the garden. The false hermit simply had to lurk there. In order to correctly play the role of the “magician of the woods,” it was prohibited for them to cut their nails, hair and beard, and it was also forbidden for them to communicate with others. It appears that this kind of hired hermit is the direct ancestor of the famous ceramic gnomes that now decorate gardens all over the world.
With all the levels of immorality that hiring a false hermit implies, the wealthy and educated took delight in observing their long white beards and grey cloaks that reached to the ground while the hermit lingered between the discomforts and pleasures of nature. Let’s remember that English gardens have always aimed to mix the wild with the tame, and the magic with the familiar.
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 (Oxford University Press), the first book dedicated to the history of ornamental hermits in Georgian England. It is a fascinating journey through the peculiarities and immoral anecdotes of the Enlightenment that nobody thought worth telling.
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.
Campbell explains that the phenomenon is best understood as a public symbol of melancholy, an emotion that has disturbed us all. In the past, cultivated sadness indicated a sensitive soul and a refined sensibility; spending money to hire a garden hermit. One is inclined to tip their hat to the courage of such a profound emotion.
With today’s temperament, that tends toward placing positive thinking above melancholy solitude, the idea of an ornamental hermit is a little less than ridiculous and immoral. But as Campbell says in his book, in our modern landscape gardening, we still keep some subtle relics of what once represented the magic and sadness of Georgian England. We have paths for solitary walks and tree branches positioned for intimate conversations as well as, of course, those little garden gnomes.
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