Photograph by Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Published May 21, 2013
Send in the gnomes.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of London's prestigious Chelsea Flower Show, the august members of the Royal Horticultural Society have decided this year to relax their century-old ban and for the first time allow the "little people" into the show—garden gnomes, that is, those tacky little statues of short bearded men with pointy hats.
Ever since the Chelsea Flower Show began, in 1913, organizers have rigorously excluded garden gnomes—and any and all such "brightly colored mythical creatures," from the exhibits. But in a break with tradition, as well as to raise money for the society's nationwide Campaign for School Gardening, gnomes will be made welcome.
A hundred of them, painted and decorated by celebrities such as Dame Helen Mirren, Joanna Lumley, and Elton John, will be making appearances among the greenery. Afterward they will be auctioned off on eBay, with the money going toward the RHS's programs to teach gardening in more than 16,000 schools around the country.
"I think it is a wonderful idea," says English garden historian Twigs Way, author of Garden Gnomes: A History. "Word that garden gnomes were going to be allowed in this year's Chelsea Flower Show has opened up a marvelous debate about what gardening is really supposed to be about. After all, we are a nation of gardeners, and for many of us, garden gnomes epitomize the great social divide on garden design. And now the social barrier has been broken, even if it is only for just this one season."
Tacky or Treasure?
Indeed, in class-conscious Britain garden gnomes are seen as strictly for the masses, nothing an upper-crust gardener would dream of having on his or her turf. In this nation of gardeners, radio talk shows have been sounding out their listeners on the subject, and countless column inches have appeared in the newspapers.
Although garden gnomes may be perceived as tacky in some of today's snobbier gardening circles, Way says, this wasn't always the case. "Back in the 19th century they were expensive pieces of garden art that only wealthier people could afford. They were made of porcelain or terra-cotta, hand painted and imported from Germany, which was where most of them were made, at considerable expense."
The idea of garden statuary goes back to Roman times, and various gnome-like statues appeared in Renaissance gardens in Italy, but the classic garden gnome as we know him today hails from Germany, and is drawn from folkloric dwarves that supposedly toiled in the mines. Statues of these folk were popular in gardens, and by the 1840s a thriving gnome-making industry had sprung up around Dresden and, later, around the town of Gräfenroda in Thuringa.
The earliest gnomes in English gardens are believed to have been a set of 21 imported from Nuremburg, Germany, in 1847 by Sir Charles Isham, 10th Baronet, a wealthy garden designer who used the figures to people his new alpine rockery on his Lamport Hall estate in Northamptonshire. Eccentric though he may have been, his gardens were widely praised, and it wasn't long before gnomes became the latest must-have for Victorian gardeners.
Only one of Sir Charles's original gnomes survives, a cheeky little fellow named "Lampy," who had been hidden away in the shrubbery and therefore missed the censorious eyes of the baronet's daughters, who disliked the statues and got rid of them. Today Lampy is insured for one million pounds when he goes traveling to garden shows around the world.
After World War I garden gnomes fell badly out of favor in England, thanks to their association with Germany. It fell to Walt Disney to bring them back in the 1930s, with his Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. "Everyone wanted one for their gardens," says Way. "They were immensely popular."
After World War II, Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey, et al. were being made cheaply out of cast concrete, and later even plastic, and quickly became the hallmark of the suburban garden. Among the many postwar gnome makers was Tom Major-Ball, father of former British prime minister John Major.
But popular though they are, never in a hundred years did one of these little fellows make it into Chelsea—until now. And it may be another hundred years before their return—the reversal of the ban is one year, and then the show goes back to being a gnome-free zone.
Explore With Nat Geo
Anders Angerbjörn learns little foxes have big attitudes.
Special Ad Section
Save on gifts from our store. Proceeds help us protect species, habitats, and cultures.