Garden gnomes - dividing opinion since 1847

Living History

Garden gnomes - dividing opinion since 1847

Garden gnomes - love them or loathe them. How did they become such a (often derided) feature of British gardens?

Garden gnomes were first introduced to the United Kingdom in 1847 by Sir Charles Isham, the 10th Baronet of Lamport. He brought 21 terracotta figures back from a trip to Germany and placed them as ornaments in the gardens of his home, Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire.

Prior to their arrival in the UK, gnomes had long since been a part of German culture. Phillip Griebel, a German sculptor, was well in tune with popular legends of gnomes in Germany, and began creating them as garden decorations in the 19th century. After reaching the UK with Sir Isham, their spread was unstoppable - particularly as he invited many of his friends and people of influence to his gardens to see them.

Of the original 21 gnomes brought back from Germany, only one still exists today.

Apparently Isham’s daughters hated the gnomes, and when they inherited Lamport Hall removed all that they could find from the property. However, they missed one.

The gnome that got away is known as Lampy, and he has happily made his home at Lamport Hall ever since. Over 150 years old, he is considered the oldest garden gnome in the world.

In 1997, Lampy was insured for £1 million and is now estimated to be worth £2 million. Visitors can see the grumpy garden fellow on display at Lamport Hall.

Arguably, gnome appreciation is something of a class issue - despite the little fellows arriving here originally through aristocratic patronage. The garden gnome gained wide popularity during the inter-war years – Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves of 1937 probably having something to do with it, but they also came to be regarded as ornaments of the lower middle class, and so despised by the upper strata. Conspicuously, they are banned by the Chelsea Flower Show.

The Royal Horticultural Society’s regulations for the Chelsea Flower Show prohibit coloured statuary – garden gnomes being particularly singled-out for a mention as a complete ‘no-no’ at one point. Despite this, garden gnomes remain popular with the public, and since 1983 regular demonstrations have been held outside the grounds of the Chelsea Flower Show calling for gnomes to be allowed in. In 2013, The Royal Horticultural Society was gracious enough to temporarily lift its gnome ban for their 100th Anniversary Show and allowed 100 gnomes, painted and decorated by celebrities such as Helen Mirren, Joanna Lumley and Sir Elton John, loose amongst the planting. The ‘arty’ gnomes were then auctioned off with proceeds to charity. This was, however, a definite one-off, and the ban continues ...

The picture is of a ceramic copy of Lampy, the oldest garden gnome in the world.

Further reading

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