Nowadays, there really is no such thing as a free lunch. Working days are interminable, BlackBerrys keep their owners tethered to the office and professions that were once looked upon as a gentle form of day-care for the feckless and inept are tightly regulated. Even journalists, for whom a gruelling shift traditionally consisted of knocking off a couple of dozen words before repairing to the nearest hostelry, have become 24-hour slaves to Twitter. If only there were an occupation that allowed you to be handsomely renumerated for sitting around all day doing absolutely nothing.
It sounds like the stuff of an opium-eater’s fever-dream, but back in the 18th century, gentlemen with a horror of conventional employment could apply to become an ornamental hermit. Not a real, honest-to-goodness doom-monger capering around in the altogether, but a human facsimile hired by a landowner to give his estate more of a picturesque feel. The hermit, so the theory went, would contemplate matters existential on his employer’s behalf, allowing him to carry on with the pursuits of the day (carousing, wenching, Whiggery) unfettered by considerations of his own mortality, culpability and so on.
The fashion for ornamental hermits began with Queen Caroline, who had William Kent run her up a faux-rustic hovel called Merlin’s Cave in the grounds of Richmond Lodge that became the home of her pet poet, a former labourer called Stephen Duck. Where royalty led, the aristocracy soon followed. ‘Nothing, it was felt,’ wrote Edith Sitwell in her 1933 book English Eccentrics, ‘could give such delight to the eye as the spectacle of an aged person with a long grey beard and a goatish rough robe, doddering about amongst the discomforts and pleasures of Nature.’
The discomforts were, however, largely theoretical. You provided accommodation for your hermit in the form of a specially built hermitage – even the more run-of-the-mill ones looked like the love-child of a Wendy house and the Taj Mahal. Landowners pored delightedly over William Wrighte’s Grotesque Architecture Or Rural Amusement, a sort of proto-Argos catalogue that featured blueprints for both summer and winter hermitages, including one with Arabic inscriptions on the walls and a roof ‘in the Chinese taste’. Few could resist a spot of gilding. Ornamental hermits, for the most part, lived in high style.
If you were to sketch out a Venn Diagram illustration the relationship between these living adornments and those of a Chappist disposition, the intersection – luxuriant facial hair, a penchant for idling – would be sizeable. But if 18th-century loafers hoped that becoming an ornamental hermit would be a case of reclining on a day-bed, wreathed in smoke, while the dosh piled up, they were sadly mistaken. Many employers insisted that their hermits cultivate a bucolic appearance – that meant bathing irregularly (if at all), growing one’s hair long and, worst of all, binning the moustache wax. They might also be required to heft an enormous tome around with them, or address visitors only in Latin. One particularly demanding landowner had a pipe-organ installed in his hermitage, and expected the resident hermit to leap up and play it whenever he appeared. In many cases, the whole business quickly degenerated into a tug-of-war between employers and the employed, the majority of whom were reluctant to foreswear worldly pleasures in favour of a godly, righteous and sober life.
In the 1740s, the Hon. Charles Hamilton of Painshill Park in Surrey, lately returned from a Grand Tour of Europe, started casting about for a man to live in the hermitage he’d had built to complement his sumptuously landscaped grounds. A stern advertisement was circulated – the Painshill hermit would have to agree to remain in the grounds for seven years, during which time he would be forbidden to cut his hair, beard and nails, speak to the servants or dress in anything other than the camel-hair robe that had been procured for him. All meals would be provided, along with a Bible, a pair of glasses and bedding. If he complied with these conditions for the length of his tenure, he would receive a golden farewell of 700 guineas – enough to keep a fellow in Madeira and tobacco for the rest of his life. Hamilton was inundated with responses, but the successful applicant’s contract was terminated after just three weeks when he was spotted in the local pub.
Some landowners wrote off human hermits as more trouble than they were worth and placed stuffed ones around their grounds instead. But others were more tolerant of sybaritic leanings – one lucky hermit’s employer throughtfully provided him with a bell in his grotto that enabled him to ring for pots of tea throughout the day. Sir Francis Dashwood (of Hellfire Club fame) went one step further and filled his estate with wayward ‘Friars’ who were positively encouraged to run riot. One Irish squire decided that if he couldn’t beat them, he might as well join them – he incorporated a serving hatch into the design of his hermitage, and threw wild parties there, with the hermit doubling as bartender.
In an age of water-cooler banalities and corporate paintballing days in the West Midlands, more and more people are looking back wistfully to the age of the ornamental hermit. In 2002, David Blandy (above), a self-proclaimed ‘artist, music-maker and streetfighting man’, travelled to Surrey and boarded himself up in a structure the size of a rabbit hutch as a homage to the original Painshill hermit. Regrettably, he let the side down by having disco anthems blasting out of a portable record player throughout his sojourn.
Arguably closer to the spirit of the originals was Josef ‘Fred’ Stawinoga, a Pythonesquely bearded gentleman who spent 30 years living in a tent on the central reservation of the A4150 in Wolverhampton. Members of the local Sikh and Hindu communities revered him as a holy man, and after he died in 2007 there was talk of a statue being erected. His appearance might have been, to the untrained eye, somewhat alarming, but he undoubtedly served a decorative purpose – the character of his patch, which was situated between a branch of PC World and a bathroom showroom, was vastly improved by his presence.
The hermit kit-list
Hankering after an ornamental hermit’s existence? Bravo. But before you pitch up at the Chelsea Flower Show and make a home for yourself in one of the gardens, you’ll need to invest in a few essentials.
1. Druid’s robes Nobody seems to be able to agree on what the druids of yesteryear actually wore, so there’s nothing stopping you from nipping along to your tailor and asking them to run you up something majestic from Harris tweed. But whatever sort of robes you plump for, it’s vital that they reach to the floor (see Point 5).
2. Skull Human, preferably – those belonging to small mammals don’t induce existential angst in quite the same way. Hollow, so an ideal place to conceal your tin of moustache wax.
3. Latin textbook When your stock of pithy epigrams eventually dries up, start flinging around GCSE declensions instead. Such is the paucity of Classically educated persons these days that it’s unlikely anyone will notice.
4. Miniature sewing kit For surreptitiously darning the aforementioned robes when they start to fray around the edges. You may now exist on the astral plane, but that’s no reason to lower your standards.
5. Appropriate footwear. Sandals are the traditional choice for a hermit. Needless to say, there are limits. This is where your floor-length robes come in – they will entirely obscure your feet from view, enabling you to stride out in something rather more suitable. A pair of rubber-soled Tricker’s brogues will do very nicely.