The Strange, Short-Lived British Trend of Hiring Ornamental Hermits

An 1830s print of visitors arriving at a hermitage.
An 1830s print of visitors arriving at a hermitage.
Flickr // Public Domain

If you were a grand gentlemen of the Georgian era, having a huge country house with lavishly landscaped grounds wasn’t enough to impress your visitors. No, you needed a little something extra. You needed an ornamental hermit.

True hermits, those who shun society and live in isolation to pursue higher spiritual enlightenment, had been a part of the religious landscape of Britain for centuries. The trend of adding hermits to estate grounds for aesthetic purposes arose in the 18th century out of a naturalistic influence in British gardens. Famed landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1715-1783) was a leading proponent of this naturalistic approach, which shunned the French-style formal gardens of old (think neatly trimmed lawns, elaborately shaped box hedges, and geometric gravel paths) in favor of serpentine paths that meandered past romantic-looking lakes, rustic clumps of trees, and artfully crumbling follies. This new style of garden frequently also featured a picturesque hermitage constructed of brick or stone, or even gnarled tree roots and branches. Many were decorated inside with shells or bones to create a suitably atmospheric retreat.

The hermitage at Waterstown, County Westmeath, Ireland.
The hermitage at Waterstown, County Westmeath, Ireland.

The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome by Gordon Campbell, Oxford University Press, reprinted with permission.

With the new fashion for building hermitages in country estates, the next logical step was to populate them with an actual hermit. It’s not clear who first started the trend, but at some point in the early 18th century, having a resident hermit quietly contemplating existence—and occasionally sharing some golden nugget of wisdom with visitors—came to be seen as a must-have accessory for the perfect garden idyll.

Real hermits were hard to find, so wealthy landowners had to get creative. Some put advertisements in the press, offering food, lodging, and a stipend for those willing to adopt a life of solitude. The Honorable Charles Hamilton placed one such ad after buying Painshill Park (an estate in Cobham, Surrey) and extensively remodeling the grounds. Hamilton created a lake, grottoes, Chinese bridge, temple, and a hermitage on his estate, then placed an ad for a hermit to live there for seven years in exchange for £700 (roughly $900, or $77,000 in today’s money). The hermit was not allowed to speak to anyone, cut their hair, or leave the estate. Unfortunately, the successful applicant was discovered in the local pub just three weeks after being appointed. He was relieved of his role and not replaced, perhaps demonstrating the difficulty of attracting a serious hermit.

One of the more famous Georgian hermits was Father Francis, who lived at Hawkstone Park in Shropshire in a summer hermitage made with stone walls, a heather-thatched roof, and a stable door. Inside, he would sit at a table strewn with symbolic items, such as a skull, an hourglass, and a globe, while conversing with visitors, offering spiritual guidance and ponderings on the nature of solitude. So popular was the attraction of a meeting with a real-life hermit that the Hill family, who owned the park, were obliged to build their own pub, The Hawkstone Arms, to cater to all the guests.

A 1787 etching of "eccentric hermit" John Bigg.
A 1787 etching of "eccentric hermit" John Bigg.

But while some estate owners struggled to find a good hermit, taking on the role did have some appeal, as evidenced by this 1810 ad in the Courier:

“A young man, who wishes to retire from the world and live as a 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. Laurence (post paid), to be left at Mr. Otton's No. 6 Coleman Lane, Plymouth, mentioning what gratuity will be given, and all other particulars, will be duly attended.”

Sadly, it is not known whether or not the would-be hermit received any replies.

When a nobleman was unable to attract a real hermit to reside in his hermitage, a number of novel solutions were employed. In 1763, the botanist Gilbert White managed to persuade his brother, the Reverend Henry White, to temporarily put aside his cassock in order to pose as a wizened sage at Gilbert’s Selborne estate for the amusement of his guests. Miss Catharine Battie was one such guest, who later wrote in her diary (with a frustrating lack of punctuation) that “in the middle of tea we had a visit from the old Hermit his appearance made me start he sat some with us & then went away after tea we went in to the Woods return’d to the Hermitage to see it by Lamp light it look’d sweetly indeed. Never shall I forget the happiness of this day ...”

If an obliging brother was not available to pose as a hermit, garden owners instead might furnish the hermitage with traditional hermit accessories, such as an hourglass, book, and glasses, so that visitors might presume the resident hermit had just popped out for a moment. Some took this to even greater extremes, putting a dummy or automaton in the hermit’s place. One such example was found at the Wodehouse in Wombourne, Staffordshire, England [PDF], where in the mid-18th century Samuel Hellier added a mechanical hermit that was said to move and give a lifelike impression.

Another mechanical hermit was apparently used at Hawkstone Park to replace Father Francis after his death, although it received a critical review from one 18th-century tourist: “The face is natural enough, the figure stiff and not well managed. The effect would be infinitely better if the door were placed at the angle of the wall and not opposite you. The passenger would then come upon St. [sic] Francis by surprise, whereas the ringing of the bell and door opening into a building quite dark within renders the effect less natural.”

The fashion for employing an ornamental hermit was fairly fleeting, perhaps due to the trouble of recruiting a reliable one. However, the phenomenon does provide some insight into the growth of tourism in the Georgian period—the leisured classes were beginning to explore country estates, and a hermit was seen as another attraction alongside the temples, fountains, and sweeping vistas provided in the newly landscaped grounds.

Today, the fascination with hermits still exists. At the end of April 2017, a new hermit, 58-year-old Stan Vanuytrecht, moved into a hermitage in Saalfelden, Austria, high up in the mountains. Fifty people applied for his position, despite the lack of internet, running water, or heating. The hermitage, which has been continuously inhabited for the last 350 years, welcomes visitors to come and enjoy spiritual conversation with their resident hermit, and expects plenty of guests.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Harry S. Truman

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Thrust into office during the climax of World War II, Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) once said he felt as though "the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me." Despite the calamity, our nation’s 33rd president managed to steer the country into a prosperous postwar era. Below are some things you might not know about the man who made the final call to deploy an atomic end to one of the world's greatest conflicts.

1. THE "S" DOESN'T REALLY STAND FOR ANYTHING.

Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri on May 8, 1884 to mule trader and farmer John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen Truman. After some deliberation, John and Martha realized they couldn't decide on a middle name for their first child, so they settled on "S." His maternal grandfather was named Solomon, while his paternal grandfather had a middle name of Shipp. "S" was his parents' compromise. (And, since his S is a name of sorts rather than an initial, it can stand alone without a period, though stylistically, it's most often seen with one.)

2. HE OWNED A MEN'S CLOTHING SHOP THAT ALMOST WENT BANKRUPT.

Harry Truman sits in a car next to Winston Churchill
Keystone, Getty Images

Upon graduating high school, Truman only briefly attended college, taking a variety of odd jobs and helping with the family farming business before eventually joining the National Guard, which he left in 1911. In 1917, he re-entered the fray during World War I and fought in France. Returning home, he and a friend, Eddie Jacobson, decided to open a haberdashery in Kansas City. Thanks to a rough postwar economy, the shop was only open three years before the partners had to close it in 1922. It took 15 years for Truman to pay back the money he owed to creditors. He refused to declare bankruptcy to wipe out the debt.

Fortunately, Truman was looking ahead to a career in politics. A wartime friend's uncle, Democrat Thomas Pendergast—the man in charge of the city's politics—suggested he run for an administrative judge position in Jackson County, Missouri. He lost reelection, but two years later he was elected Presiding Judge, where he served two terms before moving on to become senator.

3. HE SERVED JUST 82 DAYS AS VICE-PRESIDENT.

Truman's reputation for fairness grew out of his stint at the U.S. Senate. He increased regulation of American shippers and studied defense spending for any signs of waste. His work caught the eye of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's campaign committee, which was prepping Roosevelt's fourth term as president. Fearing the ailing Roosevelt wouldn't survive through the term, choosing a vice-president was perhaps more crucial than ever. Truman accepted, serving just 82 days after being sworn in on January 20, 1945 before Roosevelt died.

4. HE LEARNED OF THE ATOMIC BOMB ONLY MINUTES AFTER BEING SWORN IN.

Harry Truman examines paperwork while sitting behind a desk
Fox Photos, Getty Images

Roosevelt largely kept Truman out of the loop when it came to plans to bring a hasty end to the war. Only moments after being sworn in, Truman was pulled aside by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and told of a project that held immense and destructive power. Stimson later told him that the U.S. was probably about to complete the "most terrible weapon ever known in human history." Four months later, Truman gave the order to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively putting an end to the war. He never appeared too conflicted by the decision, later telling his sister he "made the only decision I ever knew how to make."

5. HE PUSHED FOR UNIVERSAL HEALTH INSURANCE.

Truman anticipated much of the contemporary debates over health care spending. Just seven months into office, he began advocating for care facilities in underrepresented rural areas and more public health services. He wanted Americans to pay monthly fees that would go toward health care that would cover costs if and when they fell ill. It would not be "socialized medicine," he argued, since the doctors weren't government employees. But the American Medical Association resisted, instead promoting private insurance. With Democrats losing power in the Senate and the House, Truman's plans withered. He later referred to his failed attempt for national health insurance to be one of the biggest defeats of his presidency.

6. HE ALMOST DOUBLED THE MINIMUM WAGE.

Harry Truman signs a document
Fox Photos, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It might not seem like much today, but Truman's efforts to raise minimum wage in 1950 was, relative to inflation, a huge shift in the economy. As part of his Fair Deal financial program, Truman raised the minimum hourly wage from 40 cents to 75 cents, an increase of 87.5 percent. Some economists have proposed that this helped bring the unemployment rate from 6.6 percent in January 1949 to 2.7 percent by December 1952, while others argue that events like the Korean War were more responsible.

7. TWO ASSASSINS TRIED TO KILL HIM OUTSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE.

The morning of November 1, 1950 could have been the last of Truman's life. Two members of the Puerto Rican National Party, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, traveled from the Bronx to Washington with plans to assassinate the president. They believed the move would bring attention to Puerto Rico's struggle for independence. Both wielding guns, the two idled outside Blair House, the residence across the street from the White House where Truman and his family were staying during renovations. A gun fight ensued—a guard killed Torresola but later died of gunshot wounds himself. Collazo was shot but survived and later had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment by Truman (President Carter would later commute that sentence, too, and Collazo was released in 1979). Truman was napping upstairs at the beginning of the altercation; he woke up, went to the window, and was shouted at to get down.

8. NO ONE THOUGHT HE WOULD WIN A SECOND TERM.

Harry Truman celebrates his 1948 election win
Keystone, Getty Images

Despite his accomplishments, Truman was an underdog in the 1948 presidential race, with most pundits and newspapers predicting a win for New York Governor Thomas Dewey. Truman decided to bypass press support entirely, mounting a railroad tour of the country that allowed him to mingle with the voting public in person. Arriving in Butte, Montana, he was greeted by a crowd of 40,000, a reception he later said emboldened him to believe he could win. He received 303 electoral votes, but thanks to a printer's strike, the Chicago Tribune had to go to press early that night, and they felt so sure of Dewey's victory that the headline proclaimed "Dewey Defeats Truman.” Truman held up one copy a couple days after his victory in a now-iconic image, smiling at the flub.

9. HIS GRANDSON PORTRAYED HIM IN A PLAY.

For a 2017 run in Give 'Em Hell, Harry!, a play about Truman staged in Wilmington, North Carolina, the lead role went to someone who knew a little about the man—his grandson, Clifton Daniel. The part-time actor and honorary chairman of the Truman Library Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, Daniel learned his relative's vocal inflections by listening to old recordings.

10. HE TRIED TO GO ON A ROAD TRIP INCOGNITO.

Harry Truman waves from the driver's seat of his car
Keystone, Getty Images

Five months after leaving office in 1953, Truman and his wife, Bess, decided to take a cross-country drive. This was a time when presidents weren't required to have Secret Service agents or other government escorts shadowing them following their term. But the couple underestimated how low they could really fly under the radar. They were recognized constantly as they stopped at roadside diners, shocking patrons who couldn't understand why their former president was popping in at random locations like Decatur, Illinois or Frostburg, Maryland. Driving home on their 19-day trip, Truman was even pulled over for driving 55 in the fast lane. He did not receive a ticket.

The World’s First Film Poster Is Up for Auction in London

Sotheby's
Sotheby's

Cinephiles, get your wallets out. Historic posters for some of the world’s most famous films are going up for sale as part of an upcoming auction at Sotheby’s London, including a rare promotional poster designed for the first-ever film screening, The Guardian reports.

The “Original Film Posters Online” auction is your chance to own a Henri Brispot-designed Cinématographe Lumière poster, advertising the first admission-based public film screening. The Lumière brothers’ December 1895 event at a Paris salon lasted approximately 20 minutes, showing off a number of the brothers’ short films using their specially made camera-projector, the cinématographe. The poster is worth an estimated $60,000 to $77,000.

A poster titled Cinema Lumiére shows an illustration of patrons milling around a cafe.
Lot 44 Cinématographe Lumière (1896) poster, French (est. £40,000-60,000)
Sotheby's

The auction also includes original posters for movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, several James Bond movies, and King Kong. The array features signed posters, painted advertisements for silent-era films, and concept art, ranging in price from around $650 to almost $77,000. The Lumière brothers poster is the most valuable lot on offer.

The bidding opens on August 28. You can see all the items up for auction here or on display in London throughout this month.

[h/t The Guardian]

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