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?
…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?
I said I was up for it last year, and I’m still waiting for some millionaire to take me up on it.