Gnomes, it seems, are one of those things that you are obliged to love or to loathe; as with Marmite, or olives, or Turkish delight, or Jeremy Clarkson, gnomes provoke firm, decided opinions either for or agin. The gnome, through no fault of its own, has come to epitomize the social divisiveness of garden design. For some gardeners a gnome will never pass through the garden gate, while for others a pond will never be complete without one – or two, or three.
The Royal Horticultural Society’s view on the matter has been unequivocal: gnomes are little personae non grata and have, from the beginning, been banned from appearing at the Chelsea Flower Show. However, this year - the centenary year of Chelsea – the RHS is lifted its ban on these brightly coloured mythical creatures, if for one year only. 100 gnomes, painted by the great and the good, were auctioned for charity to celebrate the show’s first one hundred years. The money raised from the auction of the celebrity-painted gnomes was contributed to the RHS Chelsea Centenary Appeal which has been launched to raise £1 million to highlight and promote the opportunities that horticulture offers as a career. (Recent findings, which are included in a report by the RHS and the horticultural industry, revealed that there is a shortage of skilled people in horticulture in the UK; many young people believe that a career in horticulture should only be considered by people who have been deemed to have failed academically, and that horticulture is an unskilled career. Part of the RHS’s initiative to combat these views is to raise awareness of gardening in schools.)
As well as being an amusing fundraising wheeze, the admission of gnomes to the show was meant to demonstrate that the RHS has a sense of humour and doesn’t take itself too seriously. This may be so (though you either have a sense of humour or you don’t; the need to demonstrate that you do seems to suggest that you have signally failed to do so) but the presence of gnomes at this year’s Chelsea should not be taken as the RHS’s endorsement of the deployment of the cheeky chappies – and the small humanoid creatures are typically male – in gardens. We should extend a little sympathy to the RHS for the task it has: a hundred years of such a deep-rooted prejudice cannot be easily overcome overnight.
The idea of placing stone figures in the garden is an ancient one. Many Roman gardens were inhabited by representations of Priapus, among whose many duties was that of protector of gardens; during the Renaissance, the gardens of the villas of the rich were adorned with garishly painted grotesques. In Germany the garden figures (gartenzwerg or garden dwarf) which came to be known as gnomes were confused with the tradition of ‘little folk’ or dwarves who were reputed to help in the mines and around the farms. The belief took root that the image of a dwarf placed in a house or garden would ward off evil and bring good luck. It has not always been the case that gnomes have been synonymous with suburban bad aesthetic taste.
It is unrecorded who brought the first gnome into England. The first to record using the figures in his garden at Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire was Charles Isham. By the 1870s, Isham had a number of gnomes populating his giant rock garden. The sole survivor of the Lamport gnomes is known as Lampy, who is insured for one million pounds. Another early admirer of the gnome was Sir Frank Crisp, whose grand country house garden in Oxfordshire sported several gnomes by the 1890s. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, gnomes were popular features of country house gardens and the lawns of vicarages; they even appeared on stands at the 1912 Horticultural Exhibition. With the outbreak of the First World War and in its aftermath, the desirability of having on display in one’s garden a gnome of Germanic origin quickly diminished. It is argued that the fashion for gnomes was revived by the screening of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the late 1930s, and it wasn’t long before even the humblest suburban garden boasted a full set of the members of that famous ménage à huit.
Always considered by some as the epitome of bad taste, it was at least thought that things couldn’t get any worse. Then the 1970s arrived. A whole new generation of gardeners were eager to cock a snook at the self-styled arbiters of good taste and rushed to the outlets selling brightly coloured plastic gnomes that were dressed in football strips and beachwear, and others whose anatomical boastfulness would have brought a smile to Priapus’s stony lips.
Not to be dismissive of the changes have occurred in the late 20th Century, along with the triumphs achieved in other areas of society where entrenched discrimination of one kind or another has been overcome, we should also celebrate that the bastion of gnomish masculinity was breached with the long-awaited arrival of the female gnome.
Perhaps, when we consider the gnome, along with other sections of society that have suffered from, and continue to suffer from, discrimination, should we not, at least, have less of a closed mind and a more open heart?