Get Thee to a Hermitage

Illustration by Omar Rayyan

Want to incorporate something really colorful into your landscaping? Don’t just add art. Add an artist.

In Bill Bryson’s entertaining and informative book At Home, he describes a trend among members of the landed gentry from the 19th century. Apparently owners of huge manor properties were constantly vying with one another to add new picturesque elements to their estates. When fake Roman ruins and elaborate labyrinths became passé, some lords and ladies chose to inject a little color by erecting a hermitage — complete with hermit. He wrote:

“For a time it was highly fashionable to build a hermitage and install in it a live-in hermit. At Painshill in Surrey, one man signed a contract to live seven years in picturesque seclusion, observing a monastic silence, for 100 pounds a year, but was fired after just three weeks when he was spotted drinking in the local pub. An estate owner in Lancashire promised 50 pounds a year for life to anyone who would pass seven years in an underground dwelling on his estate without cutting his hair or toenails or talking to another person. Someone took up the offer, and actually lasted four years before deciding he could take no more … Queen Caroline had the architect William Kent build for her a hermitage at Richmond, into which she installed a poet named Stephen Duck, but that was not a success either, for Duck decided he didn’t like the silence or being looked at by strangers, so he quit … He appears not to have been happy there; he appears not to have been happy anywhere — and drowned himself in the Thames.”

Tragic failures aside, the Vineyard might be the perfect place to reintroduce this practice. Owners of large estates would have the opportunity to not only provide housing for a local eccentric — preferably one with a creative bent — but could also enjoy all of the benefits, aesthetic and otherwise, of a live-in local character.

Of course, the modern equivalent wouldn’t be a paying proposition (it’s not so PC to purchase human beings these days), but a stipend would be necessary if the hermit were expected not to go out to work as a landscaper, house painter, or at any of the many other typical barely-solvent-artist occupations.

It’s a win-win. The wealthy get a typical year-rounder to show off to their visitors. A starving artist gets the much-sought-after luxury on the Vineyard — a place to live.

The hermit would benefit from the seclusion, and create worthy art. Poetry would be ideal, but painters would certainly find inspiration in some of these idyllic settings, and writers tend to make the perfect hermits. He or she would, of course, be expected to be as colorful as possible. There’s no point in having a hermit of your own if the hermit is just some average-looking type who doesn’t walk around either quoting Shakespeare to no one in particular or mumbling inarticulately. An unconventional look is ideal. Hermit seekers should have no trouble finding locals whose outfits don’t necessarily pin them down to any specific decade, or century, for that matter.

The classic Vineyard hermit should sport a version of this standard outfit: an oversize wool sweater full of holes (winter or summer), shorts (winter or summer), some type of odd headgear, and beat-up construction boots (male or female). Perfect hermit wear can be found at the West Tisbury Dumptique. Artists who don’t normally dress this way may be expected to wear the “work uniform” when on the property, but once they have left the grounds (to buy groceries or actually try to sell their art), they can make a quick change behind a tree while waiting for the bus.

If a poet or writer, the hermit should maintain a visible hint of heavy drinking. A bottle of cheap scotch or a box of wine should be — not too discreetly — on display for visitors. Artists, no matter how neat their work habits may actually be, should set up a fake array of messy paint containers and half-finished canvases with (preferably) one or two paintings tossed aside — or, better yet, cut to shreds for effect. A fiery temper is an asset for artists, so a sham display of self-loathing is a bonus. (For example, when offered a compliment, the hermit might start stalking around, tearing out hair and muttering, “I have NO talent. I’m washed up. Ruined!”) This behavior is not required, but may help sell a painting or two, especially if suicide appears imminent.

Although there is no set style of architecture for the hermitage itself, it should appear old and somewhat decrepit on the outside. The interior, however, is another story. Manor owners are expected to adhere to all the requirements for tenant-occupied residences. The hermitage must have heat, electricity, and running water, though an outhouse and an assortment of candles can be added as props. Wi-Fi is a necessity for a modern-day working artist of any type. Cable would be a good investment if you want to avoid the type of pub-crawling failure described by Bill Bryson. Thanks to social networking, hermits are actually much more common today than ever. Provide the necessary tools to keep your hermit as happy and isolationist as possible.

Since this type of modern hermitage is not actually a hovel in appearance (at least not on the inside), the hermit should be willing -— given adequate notice — to rearrange his furnishings for the occasional visiting guest. A large closet (or perhaps the fake outhouse) will allow for a quick decor change. Laptops and TVs must of course be hidden. On hand at all times should be a couple of rickety chairs, stained tables, and other bits of castoff furniture. As any interior designer can tell you, a few casually draped afghans (preferably of the old, moth-eaten variety) can work wonders in transforming a room, while hiding unwanted signs of the 21st century.

However, estate owners should keep these “casual” drop-in visits to a minimum. Save the full hermit treatment for VIPs. Most guests can be appeased by a furtive peak in an appropriately dust-dimmed window, or a warning that the hermit has been known to threaten unwanted visitors with a curse. (Loud muttering of oaths and breaking of crockery can often dissuade would-be snoops as well.)

Ready to set up a hermitage? Most local contractors can emulate the look of substandard housing while incorporating all the up-to-code requirements. Truly rustic can cost a little extra, but will be well worth the money spent.

Shopping around for a hermit is easy. Check out the Artisans Festival, pop in at book signings and poetry readings, or (caveat emptor) trawl the local bars. Homeless artists are everywhere on the Vineyard. It’s a literal buyer’s market.

One note: You may be tempted to switch up your hermit on a yearly basis for the sake of variety. Keep in mind that the hermitage can be rehabbed or redecorated on a whim, but the hermit him- or herself should remain a constant. An annual eviction will not only negatively impact the housing crisis (and remember, helping the community is the point, after all), but you will also be losing much of the authenticity of the original idea. Judging by Bryson’s description, seven years seems to be the average lease on a hermitage.

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