The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome by Gordon Campbell

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Reviewed by Barb Scharf

If you were a member of the English aristocracy residing in Shropshire in the Georgian era, late 1700s to early 1800s, you might well have received an invitation from the famously hospitable Sir Richard Hill to dine at his stately country retreat, Hawkstone Hall.

If it were summertime, one might be encouraged to take an after-dinner stroll through the expansive grounds, to wander along meandering paths cut through the picturesquely overgrown woods, with pauses to take in the views framed by thoughtfully planned gaps in the trees. If feeling particularly adventuresome, you could venture into the underground grottoes carved out of the Hawkstone Park’s red sandstone cliffs. Stone steps carved out of the living rock would lead one to the Raven’s Shelf, complete with stone-walled viewpoints and massive gothic arch, with endless views over the rolling countryside.

But the high point of your ramblings would be a visit to the hermitage. Here, if you were fortunate, you would find the venerable Father Francis in residence. A ring of the entry bell, and a rustic cottage door would open, revealing an exceedingly elderly bearded man sitting at a stone table, 

“on which is a skull, the emblem of mortality, an hourglass, a book, and a pair of spectacles.” The hermit, “(if awake) always rises up at the approach of strangers. He seems about 90 years of age, yet has all his senses to admiration. He is tolerably conversant, and far from being impolite…”

So says the guidebook to Hawkstone published in ten editions between 1783 and 1811. Quite remarkably, “Father Francis” appears in all of them, apparently static in his 90-year-old state though the decades roll by. For the Hawkstone Hermit was merely another of the many follies and attractions of the Park, artificial amusements designed to enhance the landscape. An elderly man was employed under contract to fulfill the role of the pensive sage. Occasionally, when a suitable candidate could not be acquired, the role was filled by a cleverly constructed automaton, voice provided by a concealed gardener, who would dramatically intone the following verse:

Far from the busy scenes of life
Far from the world, its cares and strife,
In solitude more pleased to dwell
The hermit bids you to his cell:
Warns you sin’s gilded baites to fly,
And calls you to prepare to die.

Sobering stuff, this reminder of mankind’s mortality, and herein lies the clue to the strange cultural phenomenon of the professional hermit, who was not exclusive to Hawkstone, but featured in numerous artificial hermitages through Europe and Great Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Gordon Campbell, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, was commissioned to document the role of the secular garden hermit by Oxford University Press. He concentrates mainly on their presence in the grand British and Irish gardens of the Georgian era, though the practice of installing an employed hermit is not exclusive to these places and this time.

Campbell delves back in time to the origins of temporary retreats from the world by those of wealth and power. He theorizes that the Emperor Hadrian might well have been one of the first to formally attempt such a return to simplicity, in a small house constructed on the grounds of his lavish villa near Rome. Other notable examples including “the retirement home of an American president and the palace of a Russian empress” give us a broad view of the desire for “pleasing melancholy” which led to the fashion for maintaining a symbolic hermitage and its role-playing occupant, to serve as a gentle reminder of the needs of one’s soul in view of the hereafter. The hermit acted as a surrogate for self-abasement and humility, a substitute for one’s own relinquishment of worldly things.

The Hermit in the Garden is a fascinating journey down this strange byway of the past. Though I was well aware of the existence of “hermitages” among the many quaint and queer structures constructed as augmentations of the grand landscapes of European and British stately homes of the period under discussion, I was surprised to discover how widespread the practice of employing an actual person to reside in one’s quasi-religious folly actually was.

The hermits Campbell concentrates on are not the genuine item, those rare individuals who had a spiritual calling to commune with God in rural isolation, but in their secular mimics. He muses upon the societal influences which gave rise to such a fashion, and brings forth examples of present-day manifestations of the pseudo-hermit, touching on such cultural icons of our own time such as the Disney’s Sleeping Beauty dwarves, and the ubiquitous ornamental garden gnome.

Though I felt that perhaps these last examples were a bit of a stretch, I thoroughly enjoyed Gordon Campbell’s meanderings through this esoteric topic. He includes generous excerpts from period literature, and has included a multitude of authentic illustrations, interspersed throughout the text in a most informative manner.

Two Appendices list the hermitages discussed in the text, and give further details concerning European hermitages. An extensive Bibliography is provided for those seeking to further explore the topic for themselves. The Hermit in the Garden could in fact be used as a guidebook to a present day exploration of the surprising abundance of remaining examples of these constructions in British heritage gardens.

This book is obviously well researched and rather scholarly in tone, but the author has gone to some effort to keep his prose accessible to the lay reader, deliberately omitting footnotes. Campbell writes with a pleasantly chatty tone, but I would hesitate to call this is an “easy” read for the casual browser. I would however cheerfully recommend it to those sincerely interested in garden history, and in particular to those who are geographically situated in areas where visits to the sites described are an easy journey. I have recently spent some very pleasurable hours browsing the internet and virtually exploring some of the still-existing garden hermitages Campbell references; I would most eagerly visit these in person if I could!

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Barb reads and gardens on a riverside farm deep in the Canadian countryside, and blogs mostly about books at Leaves & Pages. She sometimes feels that her contemplative life parallels that of a garden hermit, though without the long beard and prop human skull.

Gordon Campbell, The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Garden Gnome (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013). 978-0-19-969699-4, 257 pp., hardback.

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