Saturday 7 January 2012

The Garden Gnome

Elton John’s latest Oscar nods are a couple of songs from the animated feature Gnomeo & Juliet. Here’s the trailer, and plot summary.  Although what William S would think, is another matter.

Goofyness aside, I thought it was a good hook on which to hang the story of the garden gnome.  Thee little blighters have their origins in Celtic, Scandinavian and Germanic mythology, and the first record of gnomes being made as ornaments comes from the Black Forests of Germany.  Gnomes were male - there were originally no females, and their appearance with beard, jacket and pointy-hat is also directly descended from their Norse origins.

   © The "Gnome Rockery" at Lamport Hall by Chris Eaton
The first recorded examples of gnomes in a British garden comes from Lamport Hall, Northampton.  In 1848 Sir Charles Isham, 10th Baronet  (1819-1903) began to construct his rockery, upon which in the 1890s swarmed placed little china figures from Nuremberg.  Some were even  grouped to represent striking miners - perhaps inspired by the miners' strike of 1894.
The one and only Lampy - worth a million quid!
But why?  Dr Brent Ellliott offers an explanation in his authoritative Victorian Gardens (1986) ‘ the motive for their addition was religious. Isham was an ardent spiritualist, and, like Conan Doyle, extended his occultism to include a belief in the existence of fairies as spirits of nature. Not all the figures were miniature, though. Seated upon a rock there was a life-size female figure in terracotta, ‘invariably mistaken for an actual person', and probably representing the guardian spirit of the rockery; this was added after the death of Isham's wife (Emily), whom he had married the year he began the rockery.’

And what of the gnomes?  Apparently Isham’s daughter Vere hated them and had the rockery and its inhabitants covered with soil.  The subsequent restoration of the rockery, which reaches 7 m tall and looks a bit like a ruined castle,  unearthed one sole survivor of Britain’s first immigrant gnomes.  This rarity, known as ‘Lampy’ is on show int he house and insured for a million pounds! 

And one last piece of gnome tomfoolery.  Remember a few years back, the gnome became a political animal when it was revealed that the-then Prime Minister John Major's family had a gnome manufacturing business.

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