Garden gnomes are intriguing creatures. They are usually cheerful fellows with a long white beard, round cheeks, and a pointed hat, which is often red. Some are relaxed and smoke a pipe, like the one above. Others are workers who are depicted doing jobs such as fishing or construction, like the one below. They have become a part of human culture. It’s important to keep a garden gnome of any type happy. It can reputedly bring good luck, protect property, and even secretly help in the garden when it comes to life during the night.
The gnome below is sitting on a tree root located on a grass verge in my neighbourhood. He’s only recently appeared there. Several clues have persuaded me that he was placed in his new habitat by the owners of a nearby home. His paint has faded, but this doesn’t seem to have affected his good mood. Perhaps he’s enjoying the new environment and sights. Giving a garden gnome a chance to see new places has become a popular activity.
In folklore, gnomes were small, humanoid creatures that guarded the treasure at the centre of the Earth. Though female garden gnomes can be bought today, the gnomes of mythology were male (or at least those who were seen by people were). Unlike the garden ornaments, they were said to be quite unattractive beings.
Gnomes were sometimes considered to be a type of Earth spirit. They were said to be able to move through the Earth as easily as we can move on its surface. They were elusive and preferred to avoid contact with humans. People who interacted with them found that they were wise creatures who were sometimes willing to help humans, however.
Modern garden gnomes appear to resemble dwarfs as the term is used in mythology and in the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The two beings seem to have been quite similar in folklore. Dwarfs were often described as friendlier than gnomes and frequently lived above ground. They were said to be skilled in metal work.
Gnomes and dwarfs first appeared in the traditions of different European countries. This may explain why they are similar but have some different features. A detailed exploration of their origin, similarities, and differences would be interesting. The garden ornaments are always referred to as gnomes.
Garden gnomes are thought to have originated in the early nineteenth century in Germany. Philipp Griebel was a garden gnome creator who lived and worked in the German village of Grafenroda, which was known for its ceramic creations. His name has been linked to the first creation of the ornaments. He founded a firm bearing his name in 1874, but he made gnomes before this time.
Reinhard Griebel currently owns the firm. He says that while he doesn’t claim that his ancestor or the family firm created the garden gnome, they brought it to life. Unfortunately, in March of 2019, Griebel said that he wanted to retire and was looking for a buyer for the firm. If he can’t find one, the historic business will likely close.
A significant event in the spread of the ornaments occurred in 1847. Sir Charles Isham brought 21 terracotta gnomes from Germany to the rockery of his British estate. The estate was called Lamport Hall and was located in Northamptonshire. Some people liked his ornaments, but others–including his daughters–thought they were inappropriate for a nobleman’s garden.
When Isham died, his daughters removed the gnomes. They overlooked one of them, which was apparently hidden in an obscured area. This gnome still exists today and is called Lampy. He’s on display at Lamport Hall, which also still exists but now belongs to the Lamport Hall Preservation Trust. The photo below shows a replica of Lampy.
The annual RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) Chelsea Flower Show in the UK is a prestigious and popular event. It contains garden design, flower, and equipment displays. Ever year (except for 2013), the show has banned garden gnomes. Like Isham’s daughters, it has considered them to be inappropriate for serious garden design. This is a sore spot for some garden lovers.
The 2013 show celebrated the garden’s centenary. People who are famous in Britain painted garden gnomes, which were then sold to raise money for a charity. After the event, the gnome ban returned.
Unlike the flower show, the Gnome Reserve and Wild Flower Garden in Devon has welcomed many gnomes. The owners say that pointed hats and fishing rods are loaned free of charge to visitors so that the gnomes will think that the humans are one of them. I doubt whether the writers of the old tales containing gnomes or dwarfs would think that this deception was possible.
“Gnome-napping” is a prank in which someone steals someone’s garden gnome and takes it on a journey. Although theft doesn’t sound much like a prank, there’s a twist to the story. The perpetrator photographs the gnome in new locations during its travels and sends the photos to its owner to show the fun that the ornament is having. The ornament is eventually returned to its home.
A locally famous case of gnome-napping occurred in British Columbia in 2016. Leopold is a garden gnome who belongs to a woman living in a “somewhat remote” area of Victoria, British Columbia’s capital city. He wears a soccer outfit and has a soccer ball in front of one of his feet. Someone borrowed Leopold and took him on a trip. They went a step further than most gnome-nappers.
Leopold seems to have found some very interesting places to play with his soccer ball during his journey. The gnome-napper created a hard-covered book full of pictures of the ornament enjoying its adventures and containing comments about the trip supposedly written by Leopold. The book accompanied the gnome when he returned to his home.
The gnome had been through the United States and into Mexico during its eight-month journey. It was photographed smiling in front of the Grand Canyon, on a beach, and (apparently) about to enjoy a margarita. Leopold said that the family he was travelling with thought that he was too dirty for them (perhaps because of all the soccer games), so they gave him a bath.
His owner said that the gnome was cleaner when he returned from his trip than when he left. She appreciated the “beautifully bound” book that she was given and the joke. Some people might not be so happy about the temporary loss of their gnome, but Leopold’s owner thought the effort involved in creating the book was sweet.
A movement to free garden gnomes exists. Gnome-napping is not sufficient for members of the freedom groups. One group is known as the Garden Gnome Liberation Front and has chapters in multiple countries. They say that forcing a gnome to stand in a garden for a long time as an ornament and without compensation is immoral. Any gnomes that they rescue are released into their natural habit, which is often a forest.
The “rescue” may sound like an amusing activity, but it must be annoying or even upsetting for someone who has paid money for a garden gnome, for someone who has become fond of their gnome, or for someone for whom it has sentimental value. The idea of transporting a garden gnome to a new area without the owner’s permission is often discussed lightheartedly, but I think there is a serious side to it. The thief very likely has no idea what the gnome means to its owner.
It’s interesting that though real gnomes are considered to be imaginary creatures by most people today, the creatures have still been able to attract our attention as garden ornaments. The slightly mysterious features associated with them probably attract some people. For others, the gnomes are probably appealing simply as attractive and interesting garden ornaments.
I’m thinking about getting a gnome for my own garden. I prefer ones that look more like real people than cartoon characters. The one in my neighbourhood is my favourite out of all the ones that I’ve shown in this article, despite his loss of paint. The front one in the Gnome Reserve photo is the runner-up. The one behind him looks as though he’s had some interesting experiences. Given the popularity of the ornaments, I’m sure I’ll find one that would like to see my garden.
- Information about the garden gnome from Garden Collage Magazine
- Gnome maker required to take over historic firm from Reuters
- Lampy the garden gnome from Atlas Obscura
- RHS Chelsea Flower Show facts from House Beautiful
- Stolen gnome returned after eight months from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
- Garden gnome liberation front from McGill University and Wikipedia