Whimsical, Funny, Vulgar: A Brief History of the Garden Gnome

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Despite their small stature, garden gnomes cause great debate. Are they chintzy or classy? Lovable or hateful? The perfect addition to a garden bed or an easy way to ruin your landscaping? No matter what your opinion, there’s no denying that these little people are conversation starters.

The story of how these sometimes whimsical, sometimes comical, sometimes vulgar statues became fixtures in courtyards and gardens is as colorful and complex as the creatures themselves. “That’s the problem with gnomes,” says Twigs Way, garden historian and author of “Garden Gnomes: A History.” “They come from many different kinds of sources.”

There are many small figures in mythologies around the world – including the Egyptian god Bes and brownies, house spirits in British and Scottish folklore – and small stone figures began to appear in Italian gardens in the Renaissance. However, according to Way, what became known as garden gnomes in the United States and England can be traced to dwarf statues originating in the Black Forest region of Germany around the turn of the 19th century. They were first carved out of wood; in the middle of the 19th century they were cast in terracotta and porcelain. They weren’t a garden accessory, however; they were hand-painted, usually about three feet tall, and expensive, so they were meant to be displayed indoors as works of art.

The case of a (slightly) messy spring garden

Although these figures were often depicted in what became their red conical hats, blue shirts, and boots, they did not strike lazy or nonchalant poses. They were gardeners, carpenters, fishermen, even hunters. “Seeing pictures of gnomes with shotguns surprised me a bit,” says Way, who discovered such images in old catalogs.

Sir Charles Isham is credited with bringing gnomes to Britain and the garden, importing a number of them from Germany in the 1840s to decorate his huge rock garden at Lamport Hall, his estate in the Northamptonshire. It wasn’t the most auspicious introduction. “He was extremely eccentric,” Way says. “The fact that the first person to start collecting them in England was a pro-socialist vegetarian who believes dwarfs and little people are real is not a great way to establish their legitimacy.”

The next ambassador for small statues was another eccentric: Sir Frank Crisp, whose roughly 62-acre estate in Henley-on-Thames, Friar Park, was dotted with German garden gnomes and opened to the public in the early 20th century. (George Harrison of the Beatles bought the property in 1970 and claimed to dig up some of the original gnomes, which he posed with on the cover of his “All Things Must Pass” album.) Wealthy landowners began to adopt the gnomes – as they were commonly called at the time – as sophisticated garden accessories, thanks to Isham and Crisp. Photos of them even appeared in the UK’s high-end style arbiter, Country Life magazine.

In 1912 the gnomes were shown at the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition, a precursor to the Chelsea Flower Show, which started the following year and did not allow the gnomes to be shown, as the pioneers of the time determined they weren’t tasteful enough. Their 15 minutes of fame with the posh crowd was almost over.

Gnomes fell out of favor during both World Wars, when the British rejected everything about Germany, but they enjoyed a resurgence in the 1950s and 1960s. Mass-produced and often made of concrete, they were cheaper and smaller, making them more accessible to middle- and lower-class owners. This democratization was the nail in the coffin of chic gardeners. “They don’t suit upper-class gardens anymore now that they’re in the suburbs,” says Way.

Never mind. Gnomes have gone international, immigrating across the Atlantic, where Americans have fallen in love with them, thanks in part to the popularity of Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Although there is no particular mythology associated with them in the United States, people associate them with other good-natured mystical beings, such as Chinese fairies and dragons. “I think a lot of people who get a gnome — we’re not talking about people who cover their whole garden with them — often attribute some kind of luck to them,” Way says.

Their popularity skyrocketed in the United States in 1976, when Wil Huygen’s book “Gnomes”, with charming illustrations by Rien Poortvliet, became a sensation, selling over a million copies. The collaborators claimed that their fictional work was based on sightings of actual living gnomes in their native Holland, documenting history, house building, courtship, and copulation (which was apparently so robust that female gnomes almost always gave birth to twins). Poortvliet’s playful images of gnomes rubbing noses, helping injured animals, and building cozy underground huts painted them as endearing, warm characters full of good intentions.

The statues took on a somewhat irreverent turn in the 1980s when, Way notes, topless gnomes and farting gnomes began appearing on lawns. It was downhill from there. It is now possible to find statues of gnomes mooning, sitting on toilets, and spewing rainbows. We think Isham would not approve.

Despite all the mockery, there were many loving tributes to the small court devices. In the 2001 film “Amelie,” a stolen garden gnome is sent around the world to be photographed with famous landmarks, the inspiration for Travelocity’s Roaming Gnome advertising series. There have been a pair of hit and star-studded animated films, “Gnomeo & Juliet” and “Sherlock Gnomes.” (We’re crossing our fingers they’ll come out next with “Mad Max Beyond Thundergnome.”)

The Chelsea Flower Show finally warmed up, allowing gnomes decorated by Elton John and Judi Dench to grace the gardens during the show’s centenary celebration in 2013. There was even a giant gnome on display, a perfect prop for the early Instagram users looking for a selfie companion.

And don’t expect them to stop popping up in flowerbeds, at events, or on your screens. “They’re here to stay, as we keep reinventing them,” Way says. “Who knows what we’ll do with them next?”

If you’re looking to add a gnome — or other whimsical figure — to your garden, try one of these options.

geometric gnome ($151.01 for a set of three, platoDESIGNshop on etsy.com). These faceted, modern-minded companions can be tucked away in corners and beside plantings.

Rocking dwarf ($50.11, SEWASGartenzwerge on etsy.com). Full of fabulous talent and shining with shimmering purple paint, this groovy little dude rocks harder than Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.

Ziggy the garden gnome ($154.95, williams-sonoma.com). Weighing 75 pounds and standing 29 inches tall, this oversized gnome works well as dashing decor or a door stopper.

purple mushroom ($44.99, TeresasCeramics on etsy.com). Gnomes and mushrooms go together like leprechauns and pots of gold, so pair this awesome mushroom with your coolest gnome.

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