Episode 119 - The Many Follies of Heidi Klum (Gardening Week)
A few pieces of audience feedback but we’ll discuss them in the next public episode.
It’s been a hot week this week and so I decided to check in our Shazza down on the village common. You’re supposed to do that sort of thing aren’t you in hot weather? Check on elderly neighbours and visitors. Anyway, Shazza was doing okay. She’d captured a few frogs from the river and was using them to keep herself cool. It was quiet ingenious; she had them in a bucket and occasionally just put one on her forehead. I stopped to have a little chat with her over a packet of spicy nik-naks (they’re her favourite) and we got talking about a topic for this week’s podcast. As we were talking, I heard a strange voice outside Shazza’s cardboard box. “Do you think I’m sexy Shirley? Do you want my body?” I looked out and there he was, Rodney Stewart, all 2ft of him with his big, pointy nose wiggling his little arse in a pair of ridiculous tight tartan trousers. “Who are you?” he shouted. “Do you think I’m sexy?!? Do you want my body?” Well it turns out that Rodney is living with Shirley for a while until Rodney to try to help him overcome his Bovril addiction. I’m digressing, once Rodney had calmed down and stopped asking everyone if they thought he was sexy, we started chatting and Shirley recommended that I research 18th century garden hermits. It was a fantastic suggestion from her and I’m glad I visited. So that’s my topic for this week.
A concept developed in late 18th century landscape painting call the ‘Picturesque style’. This style of painting emphasised ruggedness, irregularity and texture. Paintings were composed in a more natural and less formal way. It was argued that the picturesque was somewhere between the sublime and the beautiful; two rather tricky philosophical terms describing aesthetics quality. Sublime being big, natural and awe-inspiring: like a mountain. Beautiful being well-formed and lovely, like a nice piece of jewellery. Followers of the picturesque style enjoyed paintings of ruined castles covered in graffiti with discarded tins of cheap lager everywhere, or Roman temples that fell down long ago and are now covered in goat shit, or even Hindu shrines complete with cows head butting tourists and litter everywhere. These were wild landscapes where nature was overthrowing the buildings of man with their straight lines, right angles and perfect finishes.
The picturesque style influenced landscape gardeners such as the famous Lancelot Capability Brown, who preferred irregular, flowing, naturalistic landscaped. This was in contrast to the formal French garden style. For those who don’t know, Brown was a very successful landscaper who designed gardens for wealthy Georgians. As part of this style of landscape gardening, follies were introduced into gardens; follies being false historical ruins. I should add that follies were also influenced by the Grand Tours that were popular amongst wealthy young adults. These Grand Tours were basically backpacking trips around Europe looking at places of cultural significance; like Roman ruins in Rome. The wealthy backpackers would return home and think, I liked those ruins but someone else has already pinched the sculptures so I’ll build my own one in my garden.
What’s the natural progression from owning a big estate with lovely naturalistic gardens and a few follies? Why of course it’s to hire someone to live in your folly like a smelly hermit.
Here’s an advertisement from 1797:
Just a suggestion: have a child and wait until the age of 13. You’ll then have a creature in your house for seven years who does not wash enough, does not converse and it happy living in a smelly hovel.
Honorable Charles Hamilton hired a hermit for Painshill Park, his estate in Surrey. The hermit was hired for 7 years. Here’s Hamilton’s advert:
“…he shall be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servant.”
A hermit was hired but only lasted 3 weeks because he was found in a local pub. There was probably no lack of people willing to be a hermit. Here’s a wannabe hermit advertising in a paper from 1810.
“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.”
Buy what did these hermits look like? Well here’s a 1784 description of a resident hermit on Hawkstone Estate in Shropshire:
“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 hour-glass, a book and a pair of spectacles. The venerable bare-footed Father, whose name is Francis (if awake) always rises up at the approach of strangers. He seems about 90 years of age, yet has all his sense to admiration. He is tolerably conversant, and far from being unpolite.”
If you couldn’t find a hermit to live permanently in a cold and damp corner of your Estate, you could just hire someone on a temporary basis. In 1763 the Botanist Gilbert White had some guests over at his Selbourne Estate. To really put on a show, White asked his brother to pose as a wizened old hermit. One guest, the wonderfully named Miss Catharine Battie, wrote in her diary: “in the middle of tea we had a visit from the old Hermit his appearance made me start… never shall I forget the happiness of this day...” Easily pleased. You should go on a day trip to Cambridge: tramps everywhere! And all willing to offer advice too.
At Wodehouse in Wombourne, Staffordshire, there was a mechanical hermit because the owner, the loser, couldn’t afford the real thing…
“Here he is! Our own resident hermit! He is very sage, and weirdly he has sage growing out of his ears. Say something hermit…”
*presses play button
“I want your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle.”
“I’m sure you do you smelly old thing!”
“Come with me if you want to live.”
“Oh how I would love to! To release the bonds of modernity! To break the shackles of civilisation and to live more simply, with pureness in my soul.”
“Fuck you arse-hole.”
“Well that’s not very nice.”
Father Francis who I mentioned earlier was actually replaced with a model after he popped his smelly, well-worn clogs. Presumably something bought in auction of old Disney World props. Its activated when you enter the hermitage and starts singing “I’m the king of the swingers.”
I also read somewhere that it wasn’t uncommon for the hermits to do a bit of light work around the gardens or pour drinks at garden parties. I personally love to be waited upon by someone who hasn’t washed for years and whose 12 inch finger nails scrape your face as you are offered a canape.
Apparently these resident hermits were connected to a concept of ‘pleasing melancholy’. Which as far I could understand was a pretentious concept created by noble Englishmen and women with too much time on their hands. It was something to do with the wonders of exploring the depths of ones emotions. “Oh why is there so much darkness in my being?! Oh what is it to be alive? The light and the shade. The demons within. Oh pleasing melancholy when you will release me from your unbreakable grip – don’t really release me, I’m enjoying this.”
NORTHERN VOICE, “You want fucking melancholy you big, pasty skinned, slack jawed, flower scented ponse! Try working on the railroads! Or maybe down a mine. Or perhaps you’d like to die building a suspension bridge. My wife had 20 children, all but 1 of them died in childbirth. My wife’s dead too. She died of cholera. I’ve got no legs and I’m blind in both eyes. But I still have to work 14 hour days as a mould for cast iron. They pour the stuff right down me throat. Comes out my arse as a rivet. Melancholy my burnt arse.”