Ideal Gnomes

Garden gnomes are back! It’s true. After years of the sort of discrimination no longer allowed against anything living, garden gnomes have returned to the media. A brilliant IKEA advert may have the opposite effect to that intended while the 100th Chelsea Flower Show has allowed them in for the first time ever. They say just for this year but you never know. It is a triumph of sorts after a few decades when the normally ubiquitous inhabitants of those small corners of gardens found themselves ostracised, banned and generally discredited. Perhaps there is a way back…

The origin of the word gnome is believed to be “genomos” which means `earth dweller` and relates to various myths about small subterranean creatures who could move through the earth. They were said to have powers to punish or to reward people perhaps with the gold they are supposed to have protected. However if any of them emerged from underground they would be turned to stone by the Sun. In the 1800s, a German sculptor called Philip Griebel wanted to depict these legendary figures and fashioned a mould from terracotta clay which he then dried, fired in a kiln, and painted. These models became popular and spawned an industry that has continued to this day.

They first arrived in the UK in 1847 when a traveller called Sir Charles Isham brought 21 of them here. Amazingly one of these still survives today; Lampy as he is known is worth £1m though whether this is cash or value in gold pieces from deep underground is not known.   Although some gnomes are still made in Germany, most production nowadays takes place in either Poland or China. How they came to be so closely associated with gardens probably comes from influential mystic Rudolph Steiner who suggested that gnomes could be involved in the hidden processes of plant life. Thus they are seen as friends of gardeners. One of the bizarre aspects of the garden gnome story is that in Europe there are gnome liberation groups (really). Based on animal rights organisations these liberators seek to take back garden gnomes and return them to the woods and forests.

Perhaps it was the prevalence of liberation groups that meant people couldn’t be bothered to replace stolen gnomes and turned to something else? Maybe it was the emergence of new ways of looking at gardens in which elaborate structures and wooden decking replaced traditional lawns and borders that ushered in a new gnome free era somewhere in the 1980s? Or possibly people just found it a bit unsettling to look out of the window and see two foot tall garishly dressed, bearded and be-hatted men staring back at them from amongst the shrubs? Whatever the reason, garden gnomes have been out of fashion for some time now.

IKEA’s latest advert depicts a family battling garden gnomes in order to get rid of them. It simultaneously plays on gnomes as something out of favour yet also – perhaps unintentionally- portrays them as hard done to victims. They are being pushed out of their home for the benefit of some garden furniture and they are angry- and why wouldn’t they be? The ad itself is a genius bit of film making using movie style music and slow motion to show gnomes being blasted to pieces by a high pressure hose and – in a brilliant moment- one of them rises with an angry expression from the garden pond. Surely this advert will make people want the gnomes rather than the furniture?

As for the Chelsea Flower Show, the country’s premier horticultural event has always seen gnomes as working class yet as you need a garden to show them off properly this is surely not be the case. Their one off entry to this year’s centenary event has seen a number of celebrities- including national treasures such as Elton John and Joanna Lumley- design their own gnome. Meanwhile, there are a few generations unfamiliar with the objects all of which could mean that a new age of garden gnomes may be dawning…

Gnomes. And they are  not laughing.

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