Garden Gnomes: A History

by Bethany Day on May 1, 2013

After 100 years of being turned away at the gates for fear they would distract from the horticultural displays, garden gnomes are this year being welcomed to the Chelsea Flower Show with open arms by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Not only are the cheeky figures allowed at the show this year, they are actually a pivotal part of the 100th anniversary celebrations, with no fewer than 150 gnomes, many of them decorated by celebrities, taking part in a line-up to be inspected by the Queen.

Speaking after the society’s council voted unanimously to let them attend the event, RHS director-general Sue Biggs said: “It is important for people to realise we have got a sense of humour and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. There was not one gnomophobe on the council.”

While it has been suggested that the real reason gnomes weren’t welcome at Chelsea is because they are considered ‘tacky’, the miniature men actually have a rather prestigious past.

It has been suggested by some scholars that the garden gnome is a descendent of the Greco-Roman fertility god Priapus, whose statue was found in ancient gardens, and they have also been linked to the ‘Gobbi’ statues commonly found in gardens in Germany in the 17th century which were believed to offer protection against sorcery.

When they were first introduced to Britain they were a pricey collectors’ item made from terracotta. Sir Charles Isham brought 21 back from a trip to Germany in 1847, where they were already popular thanks to the likes of sculptor Phillip Griebel. Over the next few decades they became increasingly common sights in gardens across Germany, Britain and France; nations where gardening was a popular hobby. The name ‘gnome’ is believed to date back to the 1930′s, when the designs became less scary in appearance and more like the bearded, smiling gnomes we have today.

Eventually gnomes became much more widespread, and lost their air of exclusivity, in the 1960′s and 70′s when they started being manufactured in plastic and became much more affordable.

Today, gnomes are enjoying a renaissance as the trend for kitsch remains popular. In the 1990′s gnomes hit the headlines after a spate of thefts which saw the thieves leaving notes supposedly from the gnome explaining their absence. The phenomenom known as ‘Gnoming’ soon spread across the globe and people sent owners photographs of their stolen ornaments living it up in different corners of the world.

Gnomes then began popping up in popular culture, such as the cult film Amelie and the box office hit Gnomeo and Juliet and now it is possible to buy garden gnomes dressed as celebrities or football players. Bride and groom gnomes were even released to celebrate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s marriage in 2011.


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Bethany Day

Blogger and online PR guru for Interflora UK. Interested in guest-posting on our blog? Email blog@interflora.co.uk or connect with me.

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Post category: RHS Chelsea Flower Show  

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Matt Skiba 28 May 2013 at 4:51 am

Dear Bethany,

As one of the founding members of the “Dead Gnome band co-op” in the early 1990′s, it should be known that the spate of Garden Gnome thefts in Melbourne, Victoria was courtesy of our co-op – a group of over 100 musicians/bands.

The co-op offered bands gigs – in return they had to donate a sacrificial garden gnome, or have evidence of that garden gnome’s travels to receive their gig.

We ended up with over 500 gnomes. We did interviews with newspapers, had business cards and many adverts. Evidence of this history exists in our Dead Gnome cut-out book.

A few gnomes were sacrificed, for at the start of each gig a gnome was killed. We liberated hundreds of surviving garden gnomes in the end, by taking them to a park in Fitzroy and releasing them…

Now you know the history of the Melbourne garden gnome saga, we hope you can rest peacefully knowing that it is unlikely the co-op will resurface.

Happy blogging dear Bethany :-)

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