Schmuckeremites – the living garden gnomes

jewelry emites - the living garden gnomes

John Bigg: "An Eccentric Hermit", 1787. Image: Wellcome Library/CC BY 4.0

In the Georgian era, the English upper class paid people to live in their park

To call the English nobleman Charles Hamilton (1704-1786) eccentric was an understatement. Hamilton was responsible for the design of the 80-acre rough "Painshill Park", one of the first English landscape gardens, which quickly became a model for many gardens in Europe. Although the park – which had a grotto, a Gothic abbey, a pantheon, all sorts of serpentine paths and Chinese pavilions – received much praise and approval, it had one shortcoming from Hamilton’s point of view: it lacked a person to permanently inhabit the park – after all, the parks of the time were considered to be "walkable landscape paintings".

To complete the artwork of his park, Hamilton published a newspaper advertisement offering 700 pounds to anyone willing to, "to stay seven years in the hermitage, where he should be provided with a bible, glasses, a fan mat, a straw bag as a pillow, an hourglass as a timepiece, water as a drink and food from the house. He had to wear a woollen robe and was not allowed to cut his hair, beard or nails under any circumstances, not to roam beyond the park boundaries or even exchange a word with the servant."

Room and board were free, but the money was to be paid only after the contract was fulfilled. Given the large sum, Hamilton quickly found someone willing to live in the purpose-built tree house. But the unnamed person was fired after only three weeks when he was caught drinking beer in the local pub.

As strange as the newspaper advertisement may sound, the English upper class paid a lot of money for a tree house in the 18th century. and 19. In fact, in the early nineteenth century (Georgian era), the so-called "Jewelry emites" (ornamental hermits), which should decorate your garden. The rich park owners wished for a kind of Robinson Crusoe, who as "Noble savage" with a shaggy beard, flowing hair, and torn clothes, strolls through her fine garden landscape.

Not only did the upper classes advertise, but potential jewelry emites – sometimes called ornamental emites – also offered their services. On 11. January 1810, for example, appeared in the newspaper "Courier" following ad:

A young man who would like to retire from the world and live as a hermit in a pleasant little place in England is ready to be hired by any man of honor who desires a hermit.

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The English gardens were created at that time as an antipole to the polluted and hostile cityscape of industrialization. Almost every garden had a hermitage, that is, a place of retreat in the form of a simple grotto or hut. This is where you should be able to relax and reflect. The first hermitages were composed as still lifes: The retreats were supposed to look like this, as if someone was living there. Only later did they start looking for living jewel emites.

In the Middle Ages, the court jesters embodied what the king could not live out – similarly, the jewelry hermits represent all that the upper class could not be: The hermits did not have to submit to any social conventions and were able to surrender to nature in an almost primal way. In short, they embody the much-desired departure from civilization, which fascinated many then (as now).

With the help of the jewelry emites, the park owners also wanted to create a feeling of melancholy. The "positive sadness" was quite popular among the well-heeled at that time. British historian Gordon Campbell, who was associated with "The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnomes" wrote the most comprehensive book on the subject to date, describes the park owners thus: "They were busy CEOs who chose to outsource the contemplative side of their persona."

Eccentric hermits - the living garden gnomes

John Bigg: "To Eccentric hermit", End 18. Jh. Image: Wellcome Library/CC BY 4.0

The practice of jewelry hermitism is reminiscent of the then "People’s shows", in which members of indigenous peoples were presented as exotic birds of paradise. In any case, they also demurely displayed the jewelry emites, blob, to amuse the rich.

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