Philip Thicknesse — libertine turned ornamental hermit

  • Themes: Countryside Week

Philip Thicknesse, 18th century writer, libertine, and scandal maker, found joy in his countryside retreat - a grotto inspired by the romantic fashion for 'ornamental hermits'.

Philip Thicknesse writing at a table, surrounded by demonic apparitions representing aspects of his life. Aquatint by J. Gillray after himself, 1790.
Philip Thicknesse writing at a table, surrounded by demonic apparitions representing aspects of his life. Aquatint by J. Gillray after himself, 1790. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Some think they would like to live their lives in flight. Offer them contentment, or peace, and they see a death’s head, a slow atrophy, a failure of the spirit. For them, society, however gilded, means constraint, the suppression of something vital, a barring of the way.

Philip Thicknesse, 18th century writer, libertine, scandal maker (and distant relative of mine), would count himself among such adventurous souls. His was a life of regular and disarming changes of direction that disguise a man who was desperate to be part of society but did not understand – or rather could not accept – how to do so.

Born to a Northamptonshire rector in 1719, Thicknesse had by the end of his life acquired three wives, a number of libel cases, and a healthy roster of enemies, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, and his own son. In his will, he even stipulated that his right hand be cut off and delivered to his son, George, who was inattentive, ‘to remind him of his duty to God after having so long abandoned the duty he owed to a father, who once so affectionately loved him.’

Even by the standards of Georgian society, Thicknesse was by all accounts unrepentantly awful; his nickname, inspired by the burst of invective that he kept in ready supply, was ‘Dr Viper’, and he was not, it is safe to assume, much missed when he died in 1792. Biographer John Keay has it: ‘He longed to be the talk of the town, but ended up one of society’s casualties’.

On the way, however, he collected quite the array of anecdotes. An early encounter, in 1736, with the Wesley brothers at the fledging Methodist colony at Savannah in Georgia ended abruptly when Thicknesse gleefully circulated a story of how the younger Wesley, Charles, had been rebuffed, and then beaten and sheared by one of the colony’s young women. From there, he returned briefly to England, before sailing to Jamaica to fight against a series of slave revolts, a task, he later wrote, that ‘did not tally with my idea of justice’.

Sometime after this, one wife already come and gone, he married Elizabeth Tuchet, the daughter of James Tuchet, sixth Earl of Castlehaven, thus obtaining the status – a share in a baronetcy – that so deeply attracted him. But even with these credentials Thicknesse remained unable to crack the code of Georgian society, and instead began the first of several extended periods of self-imposed isolation, at Landguard Fort in Suffolk, a small, squat garrison guarding the port at Felixstowe that had some 100 years before been the site of a minor skirmish between the British and Dutch navies as the two nations scrapped for supremacy.

Landguard Fort remained the viper’s nest for seven years, and in a sense served as a practice run for what turned out to be Thicknesse’s pride and joy, the ornamental hermitage that he built on the outskirts of society hotspot Bath, and where he spent many of his later years. Initially a European phenomenon adopted by the English upper classes, it is this role that perfectly encapsulates the contradictions of a man who spent his life either on the outside looking in, or on the inside longing to escape.

Far from the ascetics who stood on pillars in the early Middle East, or the monks who made their homes in the caves in the hill above Montserrat in the Pyrenees, the life of the ‘ornamental hermit’ was one of considerable comfort, with any impression of wildness or self-reliance a guise at most. Often the ‘hermit’ in question was hired by rich landowners as a form of entertainment or decoration. A little like a modern performance artist, they could be expected to dress like a druid or a monk, or interact with other guests, in exchange for bed, board, and possibly also a stipend.

Thicknesse did not try overly hard to hide this sense of performance. In a letter to one of his acquaintances, Thicknesse describes the living in his self-constructed ‘grotto’ (in reality, a small hut): most notably, he remarks, it is ‘just a quarter of an hour’s steep walk from the west end of the Royal Crescent in Bath’, the very emblem of the society from which he was ostensibly hiding – as much as any friend of the artist Thomas Gainsborough could really be said to hide.

However, he did make a fist of his new hermit life. In the same letter, the viper is, for once, becalmed; he looks down on Bath and its ‘discontents’ with ‘indifference’. Instead it is his ‘dingle’ and its surrounds that delight him now, and credit for this he leaves to God. ‘No spot of land can be so beautifully irregular, broken, and divided, as this dingle, and no wonder, for it is as God formed it… My eyes are as often turned upwards as downwards, with delight and gratitude, that such a walk, narrow and humble as it is, and limited as I am, is to be my last side on this side [of] the grave’.

But even as he sings the praises of his grotto, from the ‘buxom valley’ to the evidence of Roman burial sites that were turned up during the refuge’s construction, the wanderer’s spirit still hangs over the page. He looks down up the river Avon and the ‘deep-laden barks swelling with merchandize’, imagining them as ‘returning messengers, whom I have sent forth to fetch me tea from Asia, sugar from America, wine from France and fruit from Portugal’. Even with his eyes fixed on God, the 18th century gentleman could surely not be expected to turn down the flood of new delights with which Britain’s growing trade empire could furnish him.

This was perhaps the only way Dr Viper could live; somewhere at once both in and out of society, where he could both fake his indifference to the world and delight in the knowledge that people would be talking about him. All the notable locales of his career fit into this pattern; the colony, the fort, and the hermitage are all ‘other-spaces’ of this kind, Foucault’s heterotopias, places of possibility and difference. Notably, it was at St Catherine’s, as the hermitage was known, that Thicknesse wrote the work – A Year’s Travel in France and Spain, one of the earliest examples of the new phenomenon of travel writing – that confirmed his place, however minor, in history.

With death approaching, Thicknesse wrote that he would die as he had tried to live, ‘a free citizen of the whole world, slave to no sect not subject to any king’. The image for this Edenic existence, free from the manacles of rank and class, was the time he spent with the indigenous peoples of North America in his long-ago youth. As with all good mythmakers, there is in the credo a seed of authenticity, as well as plenty of self-deception. Without society, Thicknesse was nothing; seldom has a man so vigorously embodied Oscar Wilde’s maxim that ‘there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’, with quite such varied results.


Edward Thicknesse