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The Story Behind Garden Gnomes Is More Compelling Than You Might Think

When Sir Charles Isham brought 21 terra cotta garden gnomes to England to decorate his 90-foot rockery in 1847, he created a sensation in the United Kingdom for bearded garden helpers. Sir Charles had found the statues in Nuremberg, Germany– a country steeped in the folklore of gnomes, trolls, fairies and other forest folk, where they are known to be cheery, if not slightly mischievous, creatures who offered late night assistance in gardens and the protection of property. As early as the 1600s, garden statuary in Europe had evolved to include a key figure known as gobbi, Italian for “dwarf” or “hunchback.” In 19th-century Germany, these diminutive men with pointed hats, rotund bellies, and white beards became known as Gartenzwerge (garden dwarfs.)

Much like today, these garden do-gooders elicited strong feelings on either side of the spectrum in 19th-century England. Even within the Isham family, some thought the gnomes were unfit for the aesthetic of a palatial estate, and Sir Charles’s daughters cleared the garden of all but one, which remained hidden from sight until decades later. When “Lampy”—as this historic garden gnome is now known—was found, he was crowned the oldest known garden gnome in the world.

Sir Charles’s daughters aren’t the only arbiters of taste who have deemed garden gnomes unsightly. Associated with landscapes of the tasteless, tacky, and unsophisticated, the Royal Horticulture Society of Britain banished these “brightly colored creatures” from the Chelsea Flower Show in 2006, and has continued to do so every year, except in 2013—the 100th anniversary of the spectacle.

But the undeniable allure of having quiet helpers in the garden has a long history, dating back to the second century AD, when the Roman emperor Hadrian had hermits living throughout his villa’s garden. This idea caught on again in 18th-century England, when wealthy landowners would hire a person to be an “ornamental hermit” in their garden. Contracts spelled out the do’s and don’ts of the job, which included living in a rustic, unheated outbuilding (or hermitage); not speaking to anyone; not washing; wearing disheveled tunics; and letting the body go unkept—as in growing long fingernails, toenails and beards. These recluses provided the appropriate melancholic ambiance that was fashionable in Georgian England. Some historians believe that this garden hermit fad paved the road for gnome love in Britain, including Gordon Campbell, who wrote a book about this bizarre landscaping trend called The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Garden Gnome in 2013.

Once hermitages and their hermits began to fall out of favor, Sir Charles came along with his ceramic garden elfins, which offered a cheaper and more humane concept for garden decor. By the turn of the 20th century, gnomes were being produced for the masses, mostly by German factories. But the gnomes of this period were not quite the statues we know from our grandmother’s gardens. The brightly-colored, grinning creatures of today were likely influenced by the 1937 Disney feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

“The undeniable allure of having quiet helpers in the garden has a long history, dating back to the second century AD, when the Roman emperor Hadrian had hermits living throughout his villa. This idea caught on again in 18th-century England, when wealthy landowners would hire a person to be an ‘ornamental hermit’ in their garden.

Garden gnomes popped into the zeitgeist again in 1976, with the enormously successful book titled Gnomes, quaintly illustrated by Rien Poortvliet and meticulously researched by Wil Huygen. Detailed for a biologist’s state of mind, this book illuminates the life of the gnome, shedding knowledge about gnomish herbal medicines, love lives, architecture, and education. According to the book, gnomes are seven times stronger than humans, they live to be around four hundred years old, and they rub noses in both greetings and goodbyes. (Huygen’s book even details popular gnome honeymoon destinations.)

Today, garden gnomes have become a bit of an endangered species when it comes to lawn ornamentation, but cyberspace and social media have offered them a refuge where they thrive. With web-enabled photo sharing taking off at the start of the 2000s, the tireless garden gnome again became a pop culture giant as the key figure in the sports of “gnome-spotting” and “gnome-napping.” These activities made the garden gnome a household name, with appearances in movies such as 2001’s “Amélie” and major advertising campaigns for Travelocity and Ace Hardware. Gnomes around the world were being snatched up, or liberated, as the French Front de Liberation des Nains de Jardins (FLNJ, also known as the “Garden Gnome Liberation Front”) calls it, to become “gnomads” and to see the world. After ending up in front of exotic locales such as the Taj Mahal and the Great Sphinx, they would sometimes return with a photo book in hand to showcase their adventures.

With such a fantastical history, we wonder: what is next for the lively, lowly garden gnome? Based on historic patterns, they are due to return to cultural relevance about every four decades, or around 2045. If you invite them into your garden today, you can get some nightly garden help and jump on the trend (before it’s a trend) and say, “I was on that years ago!” when the movement finally coalesces. Just be aware that your neighbors might not share your enthusiasm for these “brightly colored creatures” and steal them away for a trip around the world.

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