A brief history of garden gnomes

Following news that supply chain issues and the popularity of garden centres during the 2021 lockdown are causing a shortage of garden gnomes, we revisit a brief history of the diminutive ornaments | By Julian Humphrys

Two garden gnomes on grass

What is the origin of the garden gnome?

Statues have been a feature of European gardens since at least the Renaissance. Saints, gods and mythical creatures were all depicted, and in the 17th century one particularly popular character was Gobbi, which is Italian for ‘dwarf’ or ‘hunch-back’. The inspiration for the figures of today – small men with beards and pointed hats – can be found in European folklore, which told tales of gnomes, little folk who brought good luck and helped farmers, housewives and miners. In the mid-19th century, companies in Germany began to create porcelain representations of them, which they dubbed Gartenzwerge or ‘garden dwarfs’.

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Who introduced garden gnomes to Britain?

Sir Charles Isham is the man we have to thank (or blame). The owner of Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire, he was a passionate landscape gardener whose pet project was an enormous rockery. While on a visit to Nuremberg in 1847 he acquired 21 terracotta gnomes and, on his return to Lamport, he installed the gnomes, who were carrying spades and pickaxes or pushing wheelbarrows, in the rockery as if they were mining it – with the exception of three little chaps who had downed tools and were displayed with a placard calling for better pay and conditions.

While on a visit to Nuremberg in 1847 Sir Charles Isham acquired 21 terracotta gnomes

What happened to Isham’s garden gnomes?

When he died in 1903 his two daughters, who weren’t so enamoured of their diminutive garden neighbours, disposed of the gnomes. In fact, legend has it that they shot them with air rifles. However, when the rockery was restored after the Second World War, it was discovered that one of Isham’s gnomes had survived the cull. Now named Lampy, he’s on display in the hall and is said to be the earliest (and most valuable) garden gnome in England.

Who were the gnomes of Zurich?

They were bankers in Switzerland. As a wave of speculation led to a sterling crisis in 1964, Labour politician George Brown announced “the gnomes of Zurich are at work again”. Brown’s implication was clear – the Swiss bankers were like malevolent gnomes: secretive individuals in a mountainous country hoarding their riches in underground vaults.

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This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine