Of hermits and hermitages


Summer Hermitage from William Wrighte’s ‘Grotesque architecture’ (1767), from a digital copy of the 1790 edition at https://archive.org/details/grotesquearchite00wrig

For a while in eighteenth-century Britain, there was a real craze for ‘hermits in the garden’ among aristocratic landowners. Already before the early 1700s, it had been fashionable to add summer houses, gazebos and small ‘temples’ to landscaped country estates, but the hermitage added a new perspective to the mostly classical designs found in older gardens.  Deliberately rustic, made of naturalistic materials (wood trunks, coarse stone), and almost self-consciously modelled on religious antecedents, the hermitage was designed for introspection and melancholic contemplation – more so than the polite classical and oriental structures dotting the landscape. It was meant as a kind of counterpoise to the hecticity of social life and the pressure of conspicuous displays of erudition and ‘good taste’. As a concept, the hermitage was a precursor to the Picturesque and Romantic movement that became fashionable towards the end of the eighteenth century (similar to the German Sturm und Drang movement of which Goethe was a major exponent).

Hermitage NC drawing

Drawing, possibly by Nathaniel Curzon, of a building showing the features of a hermitage (ca. 1760). Kedleston Archives.

It is no wonder then to find the occasional publication on rustic garden buildings in historic libraries, such as William Wrighte’s Grotesque architecture or rural amusement… (London, 1767) or Thomas Wright’s earlier Universal architecture (1755 and 1758). Another influential source of inspiration was Johan and Raphael Sadeler’s collections of prints featuring hermits and hermitages, originally published around 1600, but frequently reprinted in the following century and a half. Horace Walpole, who had an opinion on most things, exclaimed that the hermitage at Hagley Park (Worcestershire) was just like one of those depicted in Sadeler’s prints. Meanwhile, young Nathaniel Curzon, soon to be 5th Baronet and 1st Baron Scarsdale, appears to have studied his copy of Sadeler’s prints very closely (there was a ‘Sadeler’s prints’, printed in Paris in 1748 in the Library at Kedleston in 1765). In an anonymous drawing in Kedleston’s archives, dating from around 1760, someone – probably Curzon himself – instructs the viewer to ‘see Sadeler’s hermits’.

Why my sudden interest in this?

Well, here is why:

Hermitage at Kedleston Hall

The hermitage at Kedleston as it looked in September 2014. Photo credit: Simon McCormack. It will hopefully look very different come September 2016!

This is the small hermitage on Kedleston’s Robert Adam inspired Long Walk. As you can see, it’s not in the best state at the moment and it has only recently been uncovered from the shed in which it had been encased pending funds becoming available to preserve it. I’m currently coordinating preparations to perserve this building for the future, which will most likely involve some form of restoration (rather than keeping it a ruin).

The hermitage was built around 1761 as one of an intended series of ‘incidents’ or resting places on a 3-mile circular walk or drive around the southern perimeter of Kedleston Park. It is now also the only one surviving! Other features were a Turkish Tent or Seat, a Mount, and a number of more rustic-sounding seated oaks.

Ingman (1764) hermitage

Detail of George Ingman’s survey plan of Kedleston Park (1764). Kedleston Archives.

On the survey plan drawn in 1764, the building is clearly visible in the broad sweep of the walk filled with evergreens to shelter it from the surrounding landscape. Walkers would enter the grove from a brighter and more open environment into a more sombre and melancholic space where tea might be had inside the small building (a tea table is listed as a piece of furniture made for the Hermitage in the day-accounts of the clerk of works in 1764).

There are a couple of challenges, one of which is clear from the image above: the hermitage is right beside a rather large plane tree, which is very significant in its own right and probably formed part of the composition of this particular area. The trouble is that its roots are at the moment undermining the structural integrity of the building (the scaffold is currently holding it up!). There is also a problem with burrowing animals…

It won’t be possible to move the building, because it would disrupt the setting, which was clearly deliberately designed. We most definitely can’t, and wouldn’t want to, chop down the plane tree, which is perhaps even older than the building. So, we’re looking at a solution which would save hermitage, tree and setting – not an easy task!

The other challenge is: what to do with this building once it is finished? Thoughts and comments welcome!


  • https://archive.org/details/grotesquearchite00wrig
  • G. Campbell, The hermit in the garden: From imperial Rome to ornamental gnome (Oxford UP, 2013)
  • Kedleston Archives
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4 Responses to Of hermits and hermitages

  1. Sheelagh says:

    lovely blog

  2. Bill says:

    Splendid, Please come and rummage under all our laurels!

    Love B and C