The Curious Case of Real Life Ornamental Garden Hermits | Summary and Q&A

July 30, 2019
Today I Found Out
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The Curious Case of Real Life Ornamental Garden Hermits


In 18th century Britain, wealthy estate owners hired people to live in ornate hermitages on their properties, adopting the appearance and lifestyle of a hermit to impress guests.

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Key Insights

  • 💡 The idea of ornamental hermits may have been inspired by ancient emperors who had hermit-like retreats.
  • 💖 Landscape architect Lancelot "Capability" Brown played a significant role in popularizing natural-looking parks and the inclusion of hermitages.
  • 💟 Hermitages were designed to mimic rustic, natural structures, sometimes with eerie decorations.
  • 😮 Individuals were hired to live as ornamental hermits primarily for the purpose of impressing guests and showing off wealth.
  • 🔰 The eccentric practice of ornamental hermits began to decline in the early 19th century.
  • 🇦🇹 Saalfelden, Austria still has a hermitage that is occupied by hermits who entertain visitors seeking spiritual discussions.
  • 🌍 Garden gnomes, while popular in Europe, do not have a direct connection to ornamental hermits.
  • 🇬🇧 Gnomes became popular in the United Kingdom thanks to the introduction of terracotta figures by Sir Charles Isham in the 19th century.


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Questions & Answers

Q: Why did wealthy estate owners in 18th century Britain hire ornamental hermits?

Estate owners hired ornamental hermits to create an eccentric and extravagant display of wealth and to add a romantic touch to their landscapes for the entertainment of guests.

Q: How did individuals qualify to become ornamental hermits?

Interested candidates had to be willing to live in solitude, grow long beards, and refrain from grooming themselves. They had to follow strict rules and were often provided with basic necessities and a small salary.

Q: How were hermitages designed and decorated?

Hermitages varied in design, from underground hobbit-hole structures to stone buildings integrated into tree roots. They were often adorned with macabre decorations, such as animal bones, human skulls, and rustic furniture.

Q: Did anyone actually live as an ornamental hermit willingly?

Yes, some individuals, like poet Stephen Duck and Father Francis, lived as ornamental hermits by choice. They embraced the role, offered advice to visitors, and engaged in artistic pursuits.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • In ancient times, emperors like Hadrian had hermit-like retreats in their private villas, setting the idea of ornamental hermits in motion.

  • Landscape architect Lancelot "Capability" Brown popularized the design of natural-looking parks and included hermitages as part of the landscape.

  • Estate owners began hiring individuals to live as ornamental hermits, with strict rules on appearance and behavior.

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