Gnome Sweet Gnome
Our resident gnome in the field speaks his mind about his kinfolk's triumph and trials, from treasured German artwork to pop-culture celebrity.
By G. Gnome, Middle-earth
When I was first asked to tell the story of garden gnomes, I had my doubts. After all, who'd believe that we were once considered works of art when my kin have become the laughingstock of the gardening world, subject to merciless lampoonery?
Then again, someone has to set the record straight. There's so much more to garden gnomes than what meets the eye. I can assure you, we're not just a bunch of pretty faces. Believe it or not, we're practically garden-ornament royalty.
For those of you who've been living under a mushroom cap all your lives, gnomes are legendary woodland creatures who represent the most elemental spirit of Earth. We've been around since the dawn of time, and began to appear in German folklore during the 1400s.
Researchers believe our name was derived from the Greek word genomos, which means "Earth dweller." Yes, the ancient Greeks actually had a word for us. I can't imagine there's a Greek word for, say, those tacky pink flamingos that so many people compare us to.
But I digress. The garden gnome phenomenon began back in the mid-1800s when Phillip Griebel, a German porcelain maker and artist in the town of Graefenroda, began fashioning der gartenzwerg (translation: garden gnome) out of terra-cotta, a waterproof clay.
The gnomes were hand-painted and wore simple garb, including red caps like those worn by German miners of the day. Phillip's gnomes were highly sought as collectible artwork. Take that, pink flamingos!
Garden gnomes eventually spread into France and England. And we became statuary superstars when an English gent, Sir Charles Isham (a man of considerable good taste, I might add), brought 21 terra- cotta gnomes to his estate, Lamport Hall, in Northamptonshire. One of those gnomes still exists. Named Lampy, this 6-inch-tall fellow is insured for nearly $2 million. Bless his pointy little hat!
World War II devastated the German gnome-making industry. But in the early 1960s, gnomes made a comeback, only this time as mass-produced plastic and then resin figures. Egad! Talk about a slap in the face; it was as if a fine clothier had switched from merino wool to polyester.
Despite this, our popularity mushroomed and garden gnomes developed an almost cult-like following. In fact, it's estimated that millions of garden gnomes now dot gardens around the globe.
But this new breed of gnome was a bit, well, cheesy. Do we really need garden gnomes with celebrity faces...wearing swimsuits...standing on their heads...or even baring their derrieres? What rubbish!
Over time, we became the subject of cruel satires and pranks. Do an on-line search for "garden gnome." You'll see what I mean. There's the Garden Gnome Liberation Front, which contends we suffer from slavery and oppression and must be released into our natural habitat.
Other folks find it amusing to "kidnap" gnomes and send them around the globe, documenting the trip with photos of the gnomes standing by famous landmarks. In response, there's the Gnomes Without Homes organization, a well-intended bunch with a Web site that includes an international database of missing gnomes.
The Shame of it All
Perhaps the crowning indignity came when England's Royal Horticultural Society banned garden gnomes from its prestigious annual Chelsea Flower Show in suburban London. A sore blow, to be sure. And then there's the shameless "Roaming Gnome," the mascot for a certain Internet travel site. Cheeky fellow, indeed!
So there you have it. We're either the subject of smiles or scorn, revered as venerable garden icons or reviled as bourgeois kitsch. There's no middle ground, I'm sorry to say.
Speaking for myself, I think our kind would do well to shed our A-list celebrity status. Truth be told, most of us much prefer sunlight to limelight and gardens to glamour.
There's still hope, however. I'm told that some companies make gnomes only from replicas of original molds from the golden age of gnomes. And Reinhard Griebel, a descendant of Phillip, still makes gnomes in Germany. So perhaps all is not lost.
Who knows? Maybe another garden denizen will capture the public's fancy, and our good name will be restored. Anyone want to kidnap a pink flamingo?