Lately I've been reading about an
interesting trend in English landscape gardening circa the Gothic
Revival, namely the erection of faux hermitages, sometimes replete with faux hermits. True
religious hermits had been effectively extinct in England ever since
the dissolution of the
monasteries and the supression of the chantries in 1546; however,
during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, they were suddenly in
demand as sentimental markers of the period's picturesque aesthetic. Recall the eremitical narrator of Wordsworth's The Prelude, or Byron's brooding Giaour and his retirement to the monastic cell. Living on grounds of sumptuous estates, the 'hermits' of the Romantic era only superficially embodied their historical and literary prototype.
These men were often sought through official channels, such as the
press, and paid a respectable wage during their tenure as a living lawn
gnome, or 'ornamental hermit'. Sometimes they even did the seeking – this advertisement by a
would-be hermit searching for employment appeared in the January 11,
1810 edition of the Courier:
young man, who wishes to retire from the world and live as a hermit, in
some convenient spot in England, is willing to engage with any nobleman
or gentleman who may be desirous of having one. Any letter addressed to
S. Laurence (post paid), to be left at Mr. Otton’s No. 6 Coleman Lane,
Plymouth, mentioning what gratuity will be given, and all other
particulars, will be duly attended.1
For more on the 'ornamental hermit', check out Tom Stoppard's
Arcadia, a rather good play in which one figures prominently (with
some solid exposition about English landscape gardening to boot).
1Cited by Edith Sitwell in The English Eccentrics.