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History of Early American Landscape Design

Hermitage

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History

A hermitage was a garden structure built to suggest the reclusive and primitive habitation of a hermit. British and American garden treatises generally recommended that a hermitage be built of crude or unfinished materials such as thatch, rough-hewn stone, or mud bricks and raw wood. They often were built to resemble a natural feature such as a cave, or a “hollow tree,” according to Bernard M’Mahon (1806) and John Abercrombie and James Mean (1817). In order to enhance the effect, a hermitage could be built into a hillside or surrounded by dense planting [Fig. 1]. The outside cladding might have been made of earth with a live grass roof. If the entire building was covered with live material, it was sometimes called a “moss house.” Both A. J. Downing (1849) and James E. Teschemacher (1835) used this term in describing rustic garden structures covered with moss.1

The hermitage was particularly associated with the idea of retirement, meditation, or escape from daily life, and, therefore, often was found in an isolated part of the garden. British author Thomas Whately warned that its location should not be “close to a road,” a recommendation that American writer Bernard M’Mahon reiterated when he prescribed “some retired or private situation” as appropriate for a hermitage. Eliza Southgate’s experience of the hermitage at the Elias Hasket Derby Farm in Peabody, Mass., which she visited in 1802, suggests the depth of melancholy one might have experienced upon entering such a retreat. Lewis Miller’s sketch and poem convey a similar sentiment of solitude.

The hermitage could also be whimsical in its effect, providing a note of exotic eclecticism often desired in a pleasure garden. An advertisement for André Parmentier’s design services (1826) lists the hermitage with other picturesque garden features that included Chinese, Turkish, French, Dutch, and classical pavilions.

The interior of a hermitage might have been as crudely decorated as the exterior, although two other options have been recorded. Abercrombie recommended ornamenting the interior walls with shells, which was a conventional reference to an underworld or grotto- like environment (see Grotto). Alexander Pope’s grotto at Twickenham, near London, England (1720), was a famous example of this kind of wall treatment. A more dramatic decorating option was taken at the German religious community garden in Economy, Pa. (c. 1825), where the interior of such a structure was highly finished and refined in a neoclassical style with plaster moldings and blue, gold, and white surfaces, resulting in a surprising contrast with the rustic exterior.2 The size of hermitages ranged from a multi-room building, such as the example from Gray’s Garden in Philadelphia, to the little “hut” described by Eliza Southgate at the Elias Hasket Derby Farm.

“The Hermitage” was also used as the name of many country estates, such as John Burgwin’s seat in Wilmington, N.C. [Fig. 2], and President Andrew Jackson’s estate in Nashville, Tenn. This name served to invoke an ideal retreat, and variations on it could be applied to garden features that expressed any feeling of seclusion such as the “Hermit’s Seat” at Cheshunt Cottage, near London, depicted in Downing’s Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening [Fig. 3].

-- Therese O'Malley

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