QUIET NICHE

Garden ornaments for hire

Stephen Bates

For upper-crust Britons of the 18th century, the garden was an especial point of pride. Amid the greenery, some landscape designers placed faux ruins of medieval structures. Others went in for more elaborate ornamentation: life-size rustic hermitages, inhabited by live, rustic hermits. Gordon Campbell, a professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Leicester, chronicles the fad in The Hermit in the Garden (Oxford Univ. Press). A visitor strolling the grounds of Sir Richard Hill’s Hawkstone Park, near Shrewsbury, would come upon a “well-designed little cottage,” according to a 1784 account.

“You pull a bell and gain admittance. The hermit is generally in a sitting posture, with a table before him, on which is a skull, the emblem of mortality, an hourglass, a book and a pair of spectacles. The venerable bare-footed . . . Francis (if awake) always rises up at the approach of strangers. He seems about 90 years of age, yet has all his senses to admiration. He is tolerably conversant, and far from being unpolite.”

The professional hermit occupied, as Campbell puts it, “a specialist niche.” Some hermits offered their services to estate owners by letter. Others placed newspaper ads, though as a character in Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia points out, “Surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence.”

Terms of employment could be harsh. For his Painshill estate in Surrey, Charles Hamilton sought a hermit who would remain on the grounds at all times, refrain from cutting his beard and nails, and say nothing to the servant who brought his meals. If he heeded these rules for seven years, the hermit would be paid 700 guineas. Otherwise he would get nothing.

The hermit appealed to 18th-century Britons partly as a symbol, in Campbell’s phrase, of the “pleasurable melancholy” brought on by contemplative solitude amid nature. Although attitudes had shifted by the early 19th century — critics likened hermitry to slavery — a few garden hermitages remained occupied. According to one account, the Hawkstone gardens still had a hermit living on the grounds in the early 1900s.

A century later, Calcutta-born performance artist Ansuman Biswas revived the lonely profession. For an art installation in 2002, Staffordshire County hired Biswas as its resident hermit. Diverging somewhat from tradition, Biswas stayed in a cave rather than a hermitage and remained there for just a weekend. (Safety regulations required him to leave at night, too.) Onlookers, the project manager said, would “explore and contest the dread and contempt society now displays for the once fashionable ideal of solitude,” as well as enjoy “an antidote to . . . reality television.”

Biswas landed another hermit gig in 2009, for a project sponsored by the museum of the University of Manchester. By spending 40 days in a Gothic tower, Biswas would “question the relationship of human beings to the natural world, hinting at the inevitable extinction of the human race itself,” the museum proclaimed beforehand. In the process, he would “become symbolically dead, renouncing his own liberty and cutting himself off from all physical contact.”

No physical contact, however, didn’t mean no contact. From his secluded cell, Biswas updated his blog and appeared on a webcam.

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