Past notes: gar­den gnomes

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

What is the ori­gin of the gar­den gnome?

Stat­ues have been a feature of Euro­pean gar­dens since at least the Re­nais­sance. Saints, gods and myth­i­cal crea­tures were all de­picted, and in the 17th cen­tury one par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar char­ac­ter was Gobbi, which is Ital­ian for ‘dwarf’ or ‘hunch­back’. The inspiration for the fig­ures of to­day – small men with beards and pointed hats – can be found in Euro­pean folk­lore, which told tales of gnomes, lit­tle folk who brought good luck and helped farm­ers, house­wives and min­ers. In the mid-19th cen­tury, com­pa­nies in Ger­many be­gan to cre­ate porce­lain rep­re­sen­ta­tions of them, which they dubbed Garten­zw­erge or ‘gar­den dwarfs’.

Who in­tro­duced gar­den gnomes to Bri­tain?

Sir Charles Isham is the man we have to thank (or blame). The owner of Lam­port Hall in Northamp­ton­shire, he was a pas­sion­ate land­scape gar­dener whose pet project was an enor­mous rock­ery. While on a visit to Nurem­berg in 1847 he ac­quired 21 ter­ra­cotta gnomes and, on his return to Lam­port, he in­stalled the gnomes, who were car­ry­ing spades and pick­axes or push­ing wheel­bar­rows, in the rock­ery as if they were min­ing it – with the ex­cep­tion of three lit­tle chaps who had downed tools and were dis­played with a plac­ard call­ing for bet­ter pay and con­di­tions.

What hap­pened to Isham’s gar­den gnomes?

When he died in 1903 his two daugh­ters, who weren’t so en­am­oured of their diminu­tive gar­den neigh­bours, dis­posed of the gnomes. In fact, le­gend has it that they shot them with air ri­fles. How­ever, when the rock­ery was re­stored af­ter the Sec­ond World War, it was dis­cov­ered that one of Isham’s gnomes had sur­vived the cull. Now named Lampy, he’s on dis­play in the hall and is said to be the ear­li­est (and most valu­able) gar­den gnome in Eng­land.

Who were the gnomes of Zurich?

They were bankers in Switzer­land. As a wave of spec­u­la­tion led to a ster­ling cri­sis in 1964, Labour politi­cian Ge­orge Brown an­nounced “the gnomes of Zurich are at work again”. Brown’s im­pli­ca­tion was clear – the Swiss bankers were like malev­o­lent gnomes: se­cre­tive in­di­vid­u­als in a moun­tain­ous coun­try hoard­ing their riches in un­der­ground vaults.

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