712: The Hermit in the Garden by Gordon Campbell

by Gerard


712.09: Campbell, Gordon. The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to the Ornamental Gnome. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 210 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-969699-4.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 700: Fine Arts
  • 710: Civic and landscape art
  • 712: Landscape architecture and design
  • +09: History

At some point during the European Renaissance (no one knows for sure when), a curious trend started. Men of religion or of means built themselves a small shack in the countryside with the barest essentials and lived out their days in solitude and reflection. The hermits could either live in the vast acreage of a nobleman or by a monastery. Their lives were devoted to prayer, reading, communing with nature, writing, or gardening. Then, England got a hold of the practice and it took on a life of its own. While it does explore the European roots of the phenomenon, Gordon Campbell’s The Hermit in the Garden mainly chronicles the rise and fall of English hermitages and how they existed in (and just outside) British society, culture, and literature.

Once Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his works and his opinion that nature should no longer be flattened to please the eye, countryside estates teemed with picturesque forests, grottoes, and idyllic nooks and crannies in which to spend one’s days. Some noblemen, so encumbered by the stress of living large sought out a simpler life, which at that point meant only having one or two servants at one’s beck and call. And so, they began to construct smaller outhouses on their land to which they could retire and entertain small parties. These hermitages began popping up all over England in the 18th and 19th century.

Afterwards, some hermitages were built with the expressed purpose of hiring a local man to play the part of the hermit and entertain estate guests. These garden hermits began to take on the role of the country sage or guru in many communities. The country hermit began life as a throwback to the British druids. Many hermitages, however, were left vacant, with only local folklore detailing the identity of the hermit. Today, we celebrate the idea of the garden hermit in the form of small ceramic gnomes many people place in their flowerbeds.

This book is in many ways a guidebook to all the major and minor hermitages of England, with detailed listings, descriptions, and illustrations of hermit houses throughout the British Isles. Most of these were constructed in the Georgian Era (1714-1830), and, being constructed from wood, thatch, and other natural elements, many survive only in letters, journals, and poems. The later trend of Victorian hermitages brought the hermits out of the deep woods and into the British lawns, but by then, the trend was pretty well diminished.

Interestingly, Campbell is always telling the reader where they can go to find some of the hermitage-related documents and artifacts. While this was a little annoying at first, after time, I wanted to go to these places and experience how these hermits lived. It gives the whole thing the feel of a one-on-one lecture, and not a lofty treatise on hermits. He even doles out little jabs about how modern readers aren’t versed in classic poetry, and therefore, why he has to explain all the hermitage inscriptions. To be sure, though, this book has just about every detail there is to know about English hermitages, so be prepared for that. His bibliography and research are worthy of an Oxford publication. To anyone even slightly interested in this niche area, I highly recommend this book.