Too bizarre, but, according to Atlas Obscura , very true. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we now refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that many of these were not strictly ornamental. Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England. During the 18th century, it was the fashion among the elite to hire men to live in their gardens, pretending to be a rustic part of the landscape. Rather than write about what he’s discovered, I’ll allow Professor Campbell speak for himself in this video .
As Campbell explains, whether this method of earning one’s living was irksome or ideal would depend upon the candidate’s own particular outlook on life. “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.” An employment ad referenced in Sir William Gell’s A Tour in the Lakes Made in 1797 states that “the hermit is never to leave the place, or hold conversation with anyone for seven years during which he is neither to wash himself or cleanse himself in any way whatever, but is to let his hair and nails both on hands and feet, grow as long as nature will permit them.” Often symbolic props such as a skull, a book, and an hourglass were used to help convey to the visitor the image of melancholy, a state of mind much admired by the upper class.
The garden hermit fad began way back in ancient Rome and extended to the end of the 1700’s. It’s speculated that the custom of religious persons shutting themselves up for meditation and prayer devolved into a sort of paid profession.
(via Wellcome Library)
The garden hermit custom began way back in ancient Rome and extended to the end of the 1700’s. It’s speculated that the custom of religious persons shutting themselves up for meditation and prayer devolved into a sort of paid profession. While the custom died out around 1800, the roots of the plastic garden gnome, which is alive and well today, may very well spring from those of the hermit himself.
An 18th century hermitage that survives in Manor Gardens Eastbourne, East Essex (photograph by Kevin Gordon)