Published  03/05/2002

A pelican in the wilderness – book review

A pelican in the wilderness: hermits, solitaries and recluses

by Isabel Colegate (Harper-Collins, London, 2002)

Reviewed by Janet McKenzie

A short review does not do justice to this splendid publication by novelist Isabel Colegate, published to coincide with the exhibition ‘A pelican in the wilderness: hermits and solitude in art’ at the Holborne Museum of Art in Bath (16 April — 2 June). It is at once wide-ranging in its scholarship, personal, eccentric, touching and very amusing. Given that the quest for solitude exists in all societies and dates back to ancient times, with roots in Chinese, Indian and Western philosophies, the range of example and anecdote is most varied.

The evocative title is drawn from a quote by Thomas Traherne (1637—1674):

A man that Studies Happiness must sit alone like a sparrow upon the Hous Top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness.

ibition explores the intriguing tradition of the hermit by bringing together a stimulating and varied range of unusual images and objects. Western hermits are represented in images by Salvatore Rosa (‘A philosopher contemplating a skull’), Richard Wilson (‘The Hermitage at the Villa Madama’) and a superb painting by William Dyce, ‘Christ in the Garden of Gethsemene’. John McEwan makes a link between Patricia Neville’s 1987 picture Sir Charles Ross of Balnagown Castle and the Wendy house: ‘a fanciful portrait of an early 20th Century laird who lived much of his life up a tree on his Ross-shire estate, is a reminder that there is a Peter Pan side to the hermitage urge’.1


Any author or artist knows that the creative act is a solitary affair. The notion of escape from the constraints of normal life, workplace, to commune with nature, to ‘find oneself’, or simply to concentrate to achieve purity of thought is an ancient one. The renunciation of the ways of the world to commune with nature or the Creator is also long-established. In the Hindu tradition, the author reminds us, the fourth stage of life is the time to give away your possessions and become a holy man, or hermit. Mahler required not only solitude to compose but complete silence in the garden in the Austrian Tyrol where the cows’ bells had to be muffled while he wrote his third symphony.

In the eighteenth century, retreats were built in gentlemen’s parks all over England.

Some kind of game was being played here, or fairytale story invented, or fruitful fantasy indulged. If it was more than simply a small step into a childhood never quite lost, what was it that the hermit stood for in the play of ideas which so enchanted the eighteenth century gentleman? Here is the classical world, the temples and groves, the measured walks, the echoes of the classical authors learned at school — and in wanders a figure quite at odds with all of it. He comes from another world. He has no possessions.2

In Colegate’s analysis, the hermit is the personification of many characteristics: green man, personification of the ancient forest, wild man, holy man in the desert. He is also the outcast, disenchanted leader: ‘he is perhaps the ultimate reproach, the shadow over the bright clarity of the classical world, the voice in the wilderness which says blessed are the meek. Whatever he is, he has always attracted attention, sometimes awe, sometimes envy, usually respect. To our extremely gregarious species, the solitary is a challenge.’3

Pelican in the wilderness, the book, presents a wide range of examples of hermits and solitaries. In the eighteenth century it was not unusual for hired hermits to be installed in country houses — after-dinner entertainment could take place in the form of a walk in the wood and a surprise encounter with a suitably ragged and outlandish figure. The hermitage in an Arcadian setting could evoke romantic and fictional events, ‘played with sexual intrigue, as well as with nature and solitude, history and the idea of holiness.’4

In art, St Francis of Assisi in the wilderness or St Jerome in his cave (with books and a sleeping lion) connect solitude, nature, study and contemplation. The Australian artist Arthur Boyd (1920—1999), who lived for 30 years in England, could have been included in this exhibition. In the 1960s he did a large series of original and brilliant pastels, lithographs and paintings on the subject of St Francis of Assisi. In the 1970s, the theme of the cave was explored in his paintings of the Shoalhaven River in New South Wales, where books were burned to denote the end of civilisation. He drew heavily on classical mythology for his art, and in spite of the demands of fame in his latter years he managed always to live in geographically inaccessible places (remote Suffolk and the Shoalhaven River) to protect his solitude and privacy.5

In the eighteenth century, Rousseau’s influence in defining attitudes towards nature was enormously influential, although he himself said he would die of boredom if he had to be a hermit for long. In 1848, John Stuart Mill wrote about the importance of preserving places where people could be alone. In the mid-nineteenth century in America, Henry David Thoreau stated: ‘In Wildness is the preservation of the world.’ John Ruskin also described the joy in nature, of the sanctitiy of nature which was not for him a religious sanctity. Colegate describes many aspects of this subject beautifully:

What one might call a hermit tendency constitutes a thin but uninterrupted thread through history, a pull of the tide towards some other moon, a nostalgia for paradise or a hope of heaven. Whether for a poet or a misanthrope, a mystic or a seeker for a moment's silence, there has always been a need for a hermitage.6

Pelican in the wilderness geographically covers China, Ladakh and India; Thailand, Russia and Siberia; the American frontier; and the Egyptian and other deserts. Celtic solitaries, religious hermit orders, medieval anchorites, and Romantic notions are explored. Authors (JK Huysman, Verlaine, Oscar Wilde, Flaubert) and artists’ visions (Breughel, Redon, Mondrian, Kandinsky) of solitude are examined. Perils of the solitary life include melancholy and insanity: ‘A solitary may take leave of his senses, misinterpret messages or invent them, diminish, despair, die.’7

There are a number of important subtexts in this publication. Colegate points out that, ‘Wordsworth and Coleridge were passionate idealists, believing that the French Revolution had changed mankind’s prospects for ever. What was remarkable was that, when disillusionment set in, two men of such intellectual ability should turn away from the hope of political action and take refuge in the idea of becoming philosopher-poets in seclusion.’8

There are links between the historical figures described here and those who fight today for ecological issues, those who strive to protect green belts around towns, to curb the excesses of an urban sprawl. All about there are instances of developers who see in a beautiful wood or seaview, not the chance to contemplate wonderment or glimpses of the sublime but the chance to exploit their assets for a slice of the tourist industry. Silence is not high on the agenda of such individuals.

In the context of a discussion of Buddhist sects and the theosophical movement, Colegate discusses the influence of theosophy on writers (WB Yeats) and artists (Kandinsky, Mondrian) in the early part of the twentieth century. A particular anecdote is told which reveals that solitude and creativity do not necessarily have to take place on a mountain or in a hermitage:

Mondrian was more or less a recluse for much of his life, living in a small bed-sitting room near the Gare Montparnasse in Paris. There he would work meticulously on his calm geometrical paintings, whose planes of strong colour and opposing non-colour had for him a simple metaphysical accuracy. His fellow painter Ben Nicholson visited him in the 1930s, and climbed the steep staircase to the little room where Mondrian was at work, evidently oblivious of the sound of the trains from the station and the rhythmical thumps from the dancing school next door. Nicholson wrote that the feeling of light in the little room, and the pauses and silences in Mondrian’s conversation reminded him of ‘those hermits’ caves where lions went to have thorns taken out of their paws.’9


1. The Sunday Telegraph, 5 May 2002. Review: 11.
2. Isabel Colegate. A pelican in the wilderness: hermits, solitaries and recluses. London: Harper-Collins, 2002: xii.
3. Ibid: xii
4. Ibid: xiii
5. Janet McKenzie. Arthur Boyd: art and life. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
6. Colegate, op cit: xv—xvi.
7. Ibid: 171.
8. Ibid: 205
9. Ibid: 15.



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