During the twentieth century, gnomes were a common – some might say too common – sight in Britain’s gardens. We just couldn’t get enough of them.
But if recent research from over 50s specialist Saga is to be believed, Britain’s love for the garden gnome appears to be at an all-time low. Just three per cent of people quizzed said that they loved the humble gnome, while two fifths of people thought that they were tacky.
In fact, 12 per cent of people confessed to actively HATING gnomes. Two per cent admitted to finding that they scared them – gnomophobia, anyone? But all’s not lost – according to the same research, 22 per cent of gardeners surveyed deemed gnomes to be fun, at 16 per cent thought they ‘brightened up’ gardens. Could the gnome, for so long a maligned horticultural adornment, be about to stage a kitsch comeback?
Knowing me, gnome-ing you
Much like HRH Queen Elizabeth II, the garden gnome is a quintessentially British institution that originates in Germany.
The ‘Gartenzwerg’ (‘garden elf’) started appearing in German gardens in the 19th century, and by the 1840s, it had spread to Britain when Sir Charles Edmund Isham brought 21 of the blighters back home. Only of them, Lampy (a replica of which is pictured), still survives, and he’s insured for a cool million quid.
Legend has it that gnomes would help out in people’s gardens at night when nobody’s around. And it’s been suggested that gnomes are part of a tradition which goes back to the Romans placing statues of Priapus, the impressively-endowed fertility god, in their garden to help improve their plants. However, your typical gnome is altogether more modest than his eye-popping forebearer (Google him, if you dare) - there’s a prize for anyone who finds one of these lurking in their nan’s begonias.
The rise and fall of the gnome
Gnomes flourished in the early twentieth century, with many regional variations on the garden elf. But the Second World War saw production dip – presumably people didn’t want to hazard buying gnomes for their gardens only to have them hit by a V2 rocket a week later. Not even the world’s biggest global conflict could crush the gnome's indefatigable spirit, and the he bounced back in the post-war period – in fact, former PM John Major’s Dad, Tom Major-Ball was a noted British manufacturer, after hanging up his leotard and retiring from the circus.
But by the 1960s, Britain started to turn on the gnome. Mass-production and a move from terracotta and clay to plastics had turned British attitudes against them. They’d become naff. Passe. Gauche. Undesirable. The Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show even banned garden gnomes from the competition, huffily claiming that gnomes ‘detract from the gardens’. The gnome’s fortunes were at an all-time low.
Come the 1990s, things got even worse. Groups like the Gnome Liberation Front in France had started a practice which caused untold misery to gnome-loving gardeners and householders everywhere – GNOMING.
This zany stunt involved ‘freeing’ a gnome from a garden and returning it to its ‘natural habitat’. Over the course of 1997, the front had pilfered as many as 150 gnomes from gardens around Northern France, with its leader eventually receiving a suspended prison sentence for his nuisance actions and the group winding down activities before resurfacing for the odd prank in 2000 and 2006.
Some gnomes even ended up going on round-the-world trips, with their kidnappers posting pictures of their victims around the world. It was a minor internet meme for about, ooh, ten minutes in the early part of the 2000s.
There’s gnome business like show business
The 21st century obsession with celebrity has spread to our gardens – Dorset craftsman Kim Leacham makes celebrity gnomes to order. Here’s a selection of his work, including Lady Gaga, Alan Carr, Simon Cowell, coalition BFFs Nick Clegg and David Cameron, Cheryl Cole, and whacky Irish popsters Jedward.
King size gnome
There’s some dispute as to where the biggest gnome in the word resides. A 5.1 meter brute resides in Poland, but it was trumped by this colossus from America. (Where else?) In Britain, we tend to keep our gnomes short and sweet, but you can see one of the biggest collections of garden gnomes in the world at the Gnome Reserve in Devon, which is home to over 1,000 gnomes and pixies.
Where now for the gnome?
We’re living in an age where the lines between hip and tragically naff are blurred beyond recognition – you only have to take a saunter around some of the eye-popping fashions and facial hair on display in ‘trendy’ North London districts of Dalston, Hoxton and Shoreditch to see this in full effect. So the gnome – for so long neglected and shunned by style-conscious gardeners – is primed for an ironic comeback. They even starred in a feature-length animated re-telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, imaginatively entitled 'Gnomeo & Juliet' in 2011. (Don’t ever let anybody tell you that the film industry is running out of ideas…) Horror lovers could even get their hands on this rather frightening zombie decoration. Whatever will they think of next?