garden gnomes and other vital matters


For all their playfulness, the original ornamental hermits were not a joke. Rather, we enact our personal and societal dramas in the gardens we create, and Georgian hermits (or their spectres) were acting out their century’s preoccupation with Nature and with the great philosophical and scientific questions of the Enlightenment. Campbell’s train-spotting approach at times obscures such deeper meanings. A simpler format might have served him better, with thematic chapters followed by a gazetteer of hermits and hermitages in the style of Barbara Jones’s magisterial Follies & Grottoes (1953), which Campbell acknowledges as one of his reference sources. This is altogether a smaller book, in ambition and execution, but commendable nonetheless for Campbell’s dogged enthusiasm in assembling the first work devoted solely to ornamental hermits and their habitations, copiously illustrated with grainy black and white photographs (many the author’s own), and a handful of colour plates. I would have liked more on Thomas Wright, who straddled the worlds of astronomy, mathematics and garden design, and who might have better illuminated the shift from emblematic architectural fantasies in the style of William Kent to the blander, Edenic landscapes favoured by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, swept clean of such follies, which nonetheless crept back with the Picturesque landscapers and designers such as Humphry Repton. How garden fashions ebbed and flowed throughout the Georgian age is left to the reader to piece together.

more from Jennifer Potter at the TLS here.