Real gardens, unreal gnomes


The premises of the garden, mystifying in its magic, gleaming in the greens, fabulous in a wide panoply of blooming flowers, of the giant might of tiny twigs lying on the grassy carpet, detached but not crestfallen, of boughs of blossoms and vines of vibrant beauties, of something so soothing and joyful, relaxation it is as is it indulgent, a luxury to possess, a necessity to cherish, a therapy to rediscover the essence of life itself, of a world of amalgamating hues and fragrant wafts of fresh scented air, gentle even in their vibrancy, boisterous even in its temporality, talismanic beyond measure, such is the dreamy dwelling of this place pervaded by a charm in every space it owns so gorgeously that makes us want to while away windy evenings there, or laze away those mildly sunny afternoons with a sip of refreshment on the side, sprawled across its gentle blades of the grassy springs, in embracement of either the Cottagecore style of life or just because, for a day spent in the garden brings us indeed much closer to an ethereal pleasure, embedded in the rosy respite of joy and relief and succour, rendering radiant our souls in a feeling of belonginess, of being one with nature and living life as part of its bevy of bountiful beauties.

A curious element in such real but heavenly setting of the gardens that has been a continuing object of fiction, of mythology or simply of the imagination, forever raking up a part of the fancies, inciting a figment of its belief into notions of folklore and fantasies and stuff, is this peculiarly enchanting figure of what is called a garden gnome. Small dwarf like figures of men dressed in red pointy hats, white bearded and pot bellied, mischievious but still charming, purported to be beckoners of good luck, garden gnomes originated in the United Kingdom during the later part of the 18th century even when their seating in history, at least in some form, goes back to ancient times. Pertaining once again to the realm of the ancient Romans is this piece of garden aesthetics often regarded as some sort of a kitsch, finding representation then as small stone statues depicting the Greco-Roman fertility god Priapus, also the protector of floors, frequently placed in Roman gardens, beginning as early as the second century A.D. during the times of emperor Hadrian. The shift from the supernatural to the magic occurred sometime during the Renaissance period when gnomes came to be attested with the magical attribute and found expression as rather grotesque figurines, still finding place within the realm of the aesthetics, placed as they were still in and around lawns and gardens before embarking on the route of global popularity some couple centuries later.

But the modern day allure of this diaspora of the tiny men can be attributed to more diverse nationalities across Europe, emerging as they did during the early 1600s as a key figure of garden statutories, wherein they were portrayed as gobbis, meaning dwarf or hunchback in Italian. A more precise place of their rise to popularity in contemporary times might be considered the land of Germany from where the inventor of them, in such accounts that are most commonly encountered today, first ‘picked them up’. Known across the country as Gartenzwerge, meaning literally ‘garden dwarfs’, it was Nuremberg of Germany from where Sir Charles Isham brought 21 terracotta garden gnomes in 1847 to decorate his home garden in the UK. Anyways a land of folklore and tales and mystical traditions galore, Germany’s fascination with these peculiarly cute humanoid creatures resided in a different exploration altogether, with these little folk or dwarfsmen believed to have helped out with work in the mines and on the farms, or alternately helping in protecting precious treasure that might be buried in the ground, occupying therefore a place in tradition that led them to be identified also with an exclusive term, Gnomen-Figuren i.e. miniature figures, from which the word gnome was probably derived.

Yet despite their prevalence as figurines of prominence in the garden world, sitting somewhat perfectly in place with the mystical allure that gardens reside naturally in, gnomes have often been disregarded as unsightly and unsophisticated, seeking therefore to banish these folks of the garden from their ‘rightful place’ with varying effect. England however continues to entertain these figurines of folklore as it has done since centuries now, starting with the 1700s when wealthy landowners would hire a person to be an “ornamental hermit” in their garden, with specific set of instructions to be followed in order to meet gnomely requirements. The human fad of Georgian England died away soon after but the humanoid gnomes continued to persist as ceramic presences, receiving a particular boost with Sir Isham’s globetrotting ventures that brought these endearing figures to Britain, out of which one still exists, nicknamed Lampy and today insured and on display at Lamport Hall. Another very intriguing way in which England continues to hold on to its fetish with gnomes is by building its own Gnome Reserve, a garden built in 1979 that which today is a rather delightful tourist attraction in its status as a ‘pastoral refuge for garden gnomes’.

Source: Lamport Hall

Traditionally though, gnomes have not been exclusive to either Germany or England. Known in the traditional folklore of the latter as Hobs, gnomes have also existed in the mythologies and tales of other nations, as the Nisses of Denmark and Norway and the Duendes of Spain while continuing to enjoy elsewhere in the world as well. In their impish nature, garden gnomes have been vital agents of lending a touch of whimsy to pretty scapes of the garden, making them therefore jaunts of not just beauty but also fun and allure. Beyond their presence in folklore, the image of garden gnomes owe also their modern day boost in popularity to their enigmatic depictions in popular culture, most notably the film adaptation of the 19th century German fairy tale classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 as a dreamy Disney tale. Another very prominemtly modern way in which the garden gnome has come to be reiterated in its popular perception as a cheerful character is by virtue of such 90’s trends as travelling gnome and other garden gnome pranks that became popular, owing largely to the advent of social media.

Garden Gnome
Source: Daily Mail

As purely garden elements though, garden gnomes today are somewhat rare presences even when they exist in variations much more varied than what they had traditionally been deemed to be. Seating perfectly in line with the garden aesthetics that manifest in myriad ways, garden gnomes add a further enchantment to this magical escapade of nature. Whether garden gnomes are real or not is not the concern, whether they will continue to enhance the old world charm of these facades of prettiness for times to come is the more serious matter worth contemplation.