Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Having a live-in hermit was all the rage in 18th-century England. In recent years, some have chosen the quiet life for art's sake.
An eccentric 18th-century trend among England's elite is still alive. Kind of.
In a New York Times feature late last month on Berlin’s most beloved performance artist, Friedrich Liechtenstein (known for an absurd and unforgettable supermarket ad that went viral in February) was fresh off a two-year stint as an ornamental hermit.
In the piece, readers discover that the man who “lives his entire life as if it were a conceptual artwork” was bringing an 18th-century fad to the 21st century—cooking for, entertaining, and “spiritually enriching” those working and visiting the showroom of designer eyeglass company, IC! Berlin.
The company writes on its website that, prior to Liechtenstein’s Berlin experiment, Germany’s last known ornamental hermits inhabited gardens in Hanover (1766) and Hamburg (1795). But the concept originated and was most popular in Georgian England. During that period, ornamental hermits would typically live in decorative, small houses known as follies, built as part of elaborate greenspaces connected to private estates. For landowners unwilling to commit to hosting a real person, some would instead decorate the folly’s interior to look as if a hermit had just stepped out, carefully placing eyeglasses and an open book on a table.
Landowners seeking actual humans would place ads, like one found and republished in The Hermit in the Garden, written last year by professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, Gordon Campbell. In his book, Campbell writes of a Mr. Hamilton, who advertised for a person “willing to become a hermit in that beautiful retreat of his,” providing the selected applicant was content with “a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his bed, a hassock for his pillow, and hour-glass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, food from the house, but never to exchange a word with the servant.”
Mr. Hamilton’s offer came with other restrictions, including not only a seven-year commitment before payment, but also no shaving or nail trimming, and no leaving the grounds. Ever. Any violation of those terms and the deal was off.
For the most part, Campbell tells us, the average reply to a hermit opening came from someone “just looking for a job, but went along with the pretense.” Those open to eccentric employment posted their services in ads, like this one provided to us by Campbell:
A young man, who wishes to retire from the world and live as an 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. Lawrence (post paid), to be left at Mr. Otton's No. 6 Colman’s Lane, Plymouth, mentioning what gratuity will be given, and all other particulars, will be duly attended to.
For the landowners, it was all a means of expressing melancholy—a fashionable feeling to flaunt among the country’s most privileged at the time. Hosting a hermit let visitors know you had a soul, or that you were at least pretending to have one. “In modern terms, they were busy CEOs who decided to outsource the contemplative side of their personalities,” Campbell says. The trend peaked in the 1760s before dying off in the 1800s.
Liechtenstein's 21st-century interpretation appeared much more playful and self-aware. Living inside an incredibly sleek, mixed-use building called L40, the performance artist was drawn to a particular space inside the building's “tower” portion. He saw it as the perfect spot for an ornamental hermit, and it turns out that the building’s architect had thought the same when he designed it. “It was a totally weird coincidence,” L40’s architect, Roger Bundschuh, tells us. “I was dumbfounded.”
Bundschuh is actually quite fascinated with the history of Georgian garden architecture and the follies built within them. Translating that idea into a black, concrete building on a tight-knit city parcel means the visual references aren’t exactly easy to identify, but the “tower” section is designed to reflect the ideas behind the typical Georgian folly. In 18th-century England, a hermit would walk out of his folly and look at the gardens that surrounded them, an atmosphere that allowed for deep contemplation.
Bundschuh, whose references are often tongue-in-cheek, designed the tower portion of the L40 to have the occupant walk down from the unit and out onto its belvedere: “It has two functions," Bundschuh says. “You see it from the outside and it’s an ideal building.” But from the belvedere, the occupant looks out onto the Berlin skyline, not exactly known for being romantic in appearance. “You question yourself, 'Is this an ideal view?'" says the architect. "You start questioning what’s been given to you.”
Asked if Liechtenstein would have fit in with the average 18th-century hermit, Bundschuh says Berlin’s internet celebrity is “much too sophisticated.” Campbell adds that, “traditions must develop to remain alive, and [Liechtenstein]'s performance art is certainly consistent with the idea of the garden hermit in the 21st century.” In fact he’s not the only European artist giving the hermit life a chance.
In 2002, UK performance artist Ansuman Biswas responded to Staffordshire County Council’s application for one weekend as a resident hermit (stipend provided) at the Shugborough Estate for an exhibition called “Solitude.” In 2009, Biswas lived a hermit once more, this time spending 40 days and nights in a gothic tower attached to the Manchester Museum. Through a webcam and a blog, Biswas let the public observe his experience.
Ornamental hermits may have also, indirectly at least, inspired the creation of the garden gnome. Campbell says that the modern-day version of garden gnome we know actually traces back to Disney’s Snow White, which featured a type of gnome that is “culturally bland and wholly unsupported by an underlying ideology.” But before the animated film, “the pre-Disney gnome represented a link with the natural world,” says the hermit expert, adding that “it may not be altogether foolish to see a succession that extends from the living garden hermit to ... the garden statue to the early garden gnomes collected by gentry families.”