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Charles Elliott

Herbaceous Boarders

The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome
By Gordon Campbell (Oxford University Press 304pp 16.99)
'Landscape with Hermit', by Salvator Rosa, 1662

The applicant sounded hopeful in his letter to the noble lord:

If your honour pleases to build a small hut as a hermitage near your honour's house in a wood with a high wall round it your honour might hear of a man to live in it for seven years without seeing any human creature ... I mean not to cut my hair nor yet my beard nor my nails in that time I should wish to have all necessities of life brought to me in a private place without seeing anybody and if your honour will give proper encouragement for them years I would.

Neither history nor Professor Gordon Campbell, the author of this engaging study of one of the odder fads in garden design, can tell us whether the aspiring hermit ever got the job. But his pitch was timely. The 1770s were the high point for garden hermitages and their exotic inhabitants. All the best people had them - or rather wished they did.

It seems safe to say, as Campbell does, that there has never been a book devoted to garden hermits. This is possibly because in more enlightened times it is difficult to credit any serious landowner with hiring a malodorous ancient to squat permanently in a hut just beyond the shrub border. Yet gardeners have been prepared to decorate their demesnes with some very strange things over the centuries, from hubcaps to topiary pigs. A hermitage, even a hermit, seems relatively acceptable. The Hermit in the Garden attempts to explain why.

The basic idea of a retreat from society for the sake of contemplation goes far into the past. The Tang Dynasty scholar-official writing affectionate poetry about his rude bamboo cottage is a familiar image. Even such sophisticates as the author of the Georgics enjoyed imagining being a farmer. The draw of a primitive life, one perhaps offering spiritual refurbishment, has always been strong. What was new in the 18th century was the decorative aspect. To the gardening gentleman or lady of the time, it was the idea of a hermit that attracted, not the prospect of being a hermit oneself.

As Campbell makes plain, the impetus behind the advent of the garden hermit was a taste for the gothic and the picturesque sponsored by such trendsetters as Alexander Pope and Horace Walpole. Melancholy was suddenly considered admirable. Deliberate gloom implied deep thoughts and an affinity with nature. Where better than in the garden to express it? And what better expression of a dedication to melancholy than a real hermit's cell occupied by a real hermit?

There is probably no point in trying to establish just how serious those gardeners were who tried to recruit a hermit. Walpole certainly regarded it as silly: 'It is almost comic', he remarked, 'to set aside a quarter of one's garden to be melancholy in.' But the fact remains that quite a few did, or tried to. Charles Hamilton, whose magnificent garden at Painshill in Surrey has been largely restored and is now open to the public, hired a man named Remington, who lasted for three weeks before being caught drowning his melancholy in a local pub. Hawkstone Park, near Shrewsbury, featured a white-bearded hermit known as Father Francis, who was supposed to be ninety years old but may have actually been, at least from time to time, a stuffed automaton. (Hawkstone Park, with its dramatic surroundings, was an appropriate setting for a hermit - in 1774 Samuel Johnson, a hard-headed man, wrote that 'the ideas it forces on the mind are the sublime, the dreadful, and the vast'.) A number of others, such as Joseph Pocklington in Cumbria, advertised for a hermit (he offered a generous half-crown a day, but got no takers). Gilbert White, the author of The Natural History of Selborne, took the easy way out: he got his brother to dress up as the hermit.

The hermit fad petered out by the early 19th century, but not the fashion for eccentric garden inhabitants. Gordon Campbell ingeniously sees gnomes as logical descendants. And though unoccupied, hermitages continued to be built, and are still being built today. Deep in the woods at Highgrove, Prince Charles's Cotswolds estate, there is a tiny structure that would suit. Anyone for solitude?

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Charles Elliott has been a book editor and is the author of several books himself, the latest being a collection of essays entitled Why Every Man Needs a Tractor.

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