The UK's first garden gnomes - or "fairy miners"
Painting by Heinrich Schlitt, c.1900, Hungarian National Gallery
Do you have a gnome in your garden? If you do, you’re in good company! They are a popular adornment to our suburban gardens, although I’ll admit to having turned-up my nose somewhat at these highly-coloured little figures, including the several that populated a previous neighbour’s back-garden. And I’m not alone: The Royal Horticultural Society having banned them from the Chelsea Flower Show for many years. But more on that later.
However, I began to rethink my attitude to the humble garden gnome following a fascinating on-line lecture last year, Little Men in Red Hats: The Story of Garden Gnomes, from Dr David Marsh of the Gardens Trust. He has also written two excellent blogs about these little chaps: The Origins of Garden Gnomes and Sir Charles Isham: "A Gulliver amongst the Lilliputians" (see Notes for links to both).
Although not making an appearance in British gardens until the 19th century, gnomes have a long and fascinating history in their varying different forms - especially in folklore and fairy-tales. However, as Dr Marsh informed us, gnomes in the form we’d recognise today were first produced, carved in wood, in Switzerland, and then in ceramics in Germany in the 1840’s.
These early German gnomes were seen engaged in a wide variety of work including gardening activities - just like this early German example from the 1850's. There is even a thriving market in these early (now antique) gnomes, including their restoration, as well as the production of new models.
But it wasn't until 1874 that garden gnomes were first introduced into this country by Sir Charles Isham (1809-1903) of Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire, when he brought back around 20 ceramic Gnomen-Figuren, or ‘folklore figures’, from a holiday in Germany. Originally kept in the house as placeholders on the family dining table (they were only about 3 inches high), it's thought that it was his wife (who seemed to have better taste), who banished them to the rockery where they settled in amongst the alpine plants.
Sir Charles Isham c.1850. Artist unknown
Sir Charles became the 10th baronet in 1846, aged just 26, after inheriting the Lamport estate following the death of his elder brother. Lamport had been the home of the Isham family since 1560. Beginning life as a Tudor manor house, it developed into its current form during the 1650's with various additions over the years, and extensive alterations during the mid-1800's. The mansion is now Grade 1 listed. The Isham family left Lamport in 1976, and it's now run by a charitable trust.
Sir Charles is described on the Lamport Hall and Gardens website as having been a fervent spiritualist, as well as a vegetarian which was somewhat unusual for the time. He was also a passionate gardener, and built the alpine garden at Lamport with it's large impressive rockery some 24 feet high, 90 feet long and 45 feet wide. The rockery was Sir Charles’ particular passion, and was situated close to the house so, it is said, he could see it from his bedroom. This rockery would go on to feature in many journals of the day.
Whilst remaining the same size and in the same location, the design of the gardens at Lamport changed significantly over the generations. They were largely developed during the 17th century, with one of the main changes during the mid-18th century being the planting of formal box edgings to groups of shrubs; these garden ‘rooms’ or "box bowers" are mentioned in the horticultural press during Sir Charles' time, but were removed during the 20th century. It was Sir Charles (and earlier his mother, Lady Mary Isham, during the 1820’s), who gave the gardens their present layout. He planted Irish yew and created the Italian garden in front of the house, although his pride and joy was his remarkable rockery.
'Sir Charles Isham near the gates at Lamport Hall in 1898' (aged around 80). From 'Country Life', April 30, 1898
During his lecture, Dr Marsh mentioned a description of Lamport Hall and its gnomes from The Gardeners’ Chronicle of September 1897, so I’ve taken a closer look at this article - and others that appeared in the horticultural press. There's an interesting description of the rockery in The Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener & Country Gentleman from June 1872, a couple of years before the gnomes arrived and made themselves at home.
Lamport Hall rockery. Photograph by Simon Wilkinson
The article discusses the flower garden at the back of the house, as can be seen in the image below, which led on to the lawn, the rockery, a conservatory, and the kitchen gardens. The rockwork, the article says, “is a great feature of the gardening at Lamport, and is striking evidence of Sir Charles Isham’s fine taste and wonderful patience” - the rock garden having been his own work, taking some 22 years to “bring it to its present high perfection”.
'The Flower Garden at Lamport Hall'. An engraving from a photograph from 'The Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener & Country Gentleman', June 20, 1872
The article also describes the rockery as “a huge hillock of roots of trees, stones, shells, etc., with plants of all kinds growing among them”. However, the author continues, except from the conservatory and a bedroom window or two (including, presumably, that of Sir Charles), "from no part of the house or grounds do you see much of the rockery until you get inside it". It's only then that you can see it’s “sweeping and swelling curves” and “its deep recesses, bold protrusions, mounds as if fallen from ruins, depressions as of the remains of partly filled moats, and all grouped and studded with next-to-endless varieties of rock and alpine plants”. It continues, “the whole affair is not only the design of the Baronet, but almost every stone, large as many of them are, was put in its place by his own hands”.
'The Rockery at Lamport Hall'. An engraving from a photograph from 'The Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener & Country Gentleman', June 20, 1872
The Gardeners' Chronicle article of 25th September, 1897 describes the rockery as “the most unique spot in the garden, and one wherein have been concentrated most of Sir Charles’ interest and personal work”.
‘View of the Rockery in Sir Charles Isham’s Garden, Lamport Hall’. From ‘The Gardeners’ Chronicle’, September 25, 1897
It also mentions “crystal caves” formed of quartz, which produce “a distinct and admirable effect”, and describes the gnomes (now firmly in residence) as “pretty miniature figures or models a few inches high, that represent gnomes or fairy miners at work in the caves and crevices; some have caught the trade union spirit and are ‘on strike’. The demand they make is prominently displayed on a board hoisted at the entrance to a crevice. The use of miniature figures… certainly increases the weirdness and novelty of the scene; whilst the positions some of them have been placed in at Lamport are suggestive of reality”.
‘Section of Rockery at Lamport, showing the Fairy Miners “On Strike”', from 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', 25th September, 1897
As can be seen below, these gnomes were usually shown hard at work (when not on ‘strike’ presumably!) and looking much more serious than the jolly gnomes we’re used to.
In December 1898, Country Life carried a brief article about Sir Charles and his rockery. Titled ‘An Amusing Hobby’, it describes how, not content to be a mere rock gardener (for which he was well known in the horticultural world), Sir Charles included miniature caves peopling the rockwork, “overgrown in luxuriant saxifrage”, with ”amusing figures of gnomes” with harmless verse underneath. “A very pretty and innocent caprice” they concluded.
However, it's an article titled ‘A Wonderful Rock Garden’ in The Strand Magazine (famous for publishing Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories) in February 1900 that discusses the actual smallness of the rockery plants and figures, despite its physical size. Sir Charles cleverly used small plants not exceeding 3 feet in height, mostly the dwarf conifers already mentioned, as well as miniature ivies and numerous alpines.
It describes the rockery as being “full of curiosities in the way of plant life”, with numerous alpine plants procured with “much trouble and at great expense” which clothe the stones and show themselves through the crevices. One plant, Agave Utahensis, at 15 years old and only 5 inches high, was a rare specimen of a hardy American aloe, while another plant used was the Spider house leek “whose silvery tones are delightfully pleasing”. But it’s always the gnomes that get the most attention in these articles; The Strand being of the opinion that “one seems in looking upon them much like a Gulliver amongst the Lilliputians, and a recollection of the weirdness of the scene leads one almost to wonder whether the figures are not the creation of an imaginative fancy”.
The article also describes Sir Charles’ “curious” method of planting amongst the stones: having put a stone in place himself, or instructing this to be done under his guidance, he would chisel a small hole in the stone, often over one foot in depth, and fill the hole with soil so that, once in situ, a plant's roots had enough to sustain it. Several photographs of the gnomes at work, and 'on strike', illustrate the article, but they are too dark and not of sufficient quality to show here. The article even mentions the difficulty for the photographer in getting images of the 2 ½ to 3 inch high figures. [The photographer from The Gardeners' Chronicle obviously fared much better...]
'Section of Rockery at Lamport Hall' from 'The Gardeners Chronicle', 25th September, 1897. You can see little plants and crystals in this image
Sir Charles also produced a hand-illustrated treatise titled Notes on Gnomes and Remarks on Rock Gardens which celebrated his passion, while claiming that the gnomes were the rockery’s “chief attraction”. In it he also credits landscape designer John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) with first advocating the idea of introducing “lifelike diminutive figures into gardens” [so now we know who's really to blame...] and himself with its first realisation. Sir Charles, who was keen on the Victorian craze for fairies, thought that his miniature miners came alive at night, writing in an article that he believed mines were inhabited by races of tiny beings who helped human miners find new seams of minerals [oh dear...]. He later wrote that: “Although the nature of gnomes is at present very obscure it, like all other occult phenomena, is receiving attention throughout the world. Seeing such things is no longer an indication of mental delusion but rather extension of faculty”! [Although this does sound very strange, but you may recall that many people, including Arthur Conan Doyle himself, were convinced of the existence of fairies for some time.]
Sir Charles Isham's booklet, 'Notes on Gnomes and Remarks on Rock Gardens'
After his death, in April 1903 The Garden magazine carried a brief obituary of Sir Charles. Describing the gardens as “quaint”, as they were probably slightly old fashioned by this time, the article quotes Sir Charles' own description of “the famous rock garden” as being “an assemblage of small caves, crevices, excavations, and inequalities, carpeted and encrusted with a vegetation suited to that purpose”. The article's author describes the rock garden as mountain scenery on a reduced scale, with pigmy trees a main feature - as in the image below. Sir Charles made quite a collection of dwarf conifers for the rockery, some of which were reputedly over 100 years old, and apparently spared no effort in acquiring different species*. The Garden thought the “fairy miners” were a particularly distinctive feature of the rockery, forming a “strange association” with the dwarf trees - while the 'strikers', with their hands in their pockets, showed “a general aspect of distain and indignation”!
‘Dwarf Fir Tree on Rockwork’. From 'Obituary of Sir Charles Isham, Bart.' 'The Garden', April 18, 1903
The Strand's article in 1900 had thought that the “box bowers” and the “curiously trained yew trees”, together with the rockery, made Lamport “one of the most interesting places in England". But, they pointed out, even Sir Charles realised that in all probability the garden and rockery would not survive him, quoting him as saying that “The constructor of the Lamport rockery, being advanced in years and being still a learner in the art of rock gardening, is conscious that what has entailed a period of fifty years of almost daily employment could not be maintained in any approach to its integrity by a new hand”.
‘View of the Ivy Arch, and Curiously-Pruned Irish Yews in Sir C. Isham’s Garden, Lamport Hall’ (there were 106 specimens of Irish Yew forming a 'walk', all pruned differently), from 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', 4th December, 1897
And Sir Charles was right. Having only daughters, Lamport Hall was, just like the fictional Downton Abbey, an entailed estate: the heir being a first cousin once removed, who would inherit the house and the land. So Sir Charles mortgaged the estate to the hilt to provide dowries for his girls, who did indeed marry well. When his heir, the 11th baronet, arrived after Sir Charles' death, he found the estate so much in debt he couldn’t even afford to live in the house.
Although still associated with the Isham family, what followed were decades of uncertainty and decline. The National Trust even turned down an offer to take it on, as the estate was in such a bad way. Eventually however, Lamport was put into trust and it's future became brighter. Fortunately, the estate had managed to hang on to an outstanding collection of art and furniture collected by the 3rd baronet during his ‘Grand Tour’ in the 1670’s, and it's now successfully run by the charitable Lamport Hall Preservation Trust. Even the family connection has not been completely lost, with the current heir to the Isham baronetcy now the chairman of the Board of Trustees.
Legend has it that after Sir Charles's death, the gnomes were shot at with air rifles by his daughters with only a sole survivor. It’s thought that this one little gnome survived by falling down a rockery crevice when under fire from the rifle-wielding daughters - only to be rediscovered half a century later.
As the BBC News reported in 1997, this famous gnome, known as ‘Lampy’, is believed to be the oldest existing garden gnome in the world. Now on display at Lamport Hall, and safely behind glass, it’s believed to be insured for £1 million and probably worth £2 million. A coloured ceramic replica of the original can be seen below. ‘Lampy’ certainly looks more cheerful than his friends in the other photographs, and this version of the figure looks as if he should be holding something. As can be seen in the image below, the original was holding a spade.
'The Lamport Gnome' 1847 – a ceramic, coloured version of ‘Lampy’, considered the oldest surviving garden gnome in the world
But, before I finish, a word on the Royal Horticultural Society’s attitude to the humble garden gnome. According to Brent Elliott’s The Royal Horticultural Society: A History 1804-2004, the garden gnome became widely popular during the inter-war years - Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves of 1937 probably having something to do with it, but they also came to be regarded as “ornaments of the lower middle class, and so despised by the upper strata”. [How rude!]
And this attitude seems to have been carried on by the 'powers that be' at the RHS, as their regulations for the Chelsea Flower Show still prohibit the use of “brightly coloured mythical creatures” which includes fairies, pixies and, of course, gnomes, which were singled-out for a mention as a complete 'no-no' at one point. The main reason being (they say) is that it's thought that such things, including balloons, bunting and flags, would distract visitors from the plants. Gnomes have therefore been the source of minor disputes within the show for many years, with some people saying that the ban is down to snobbery, while others think that gnomes and the like are too tacky for such a prestigious show.
The original 'Lampy' - now kept safely behind glass. At just under 6 inches high in shades of terracotta and scarlet, clutching a spade not much longer than a toothpick. Photograph by John Robertson
Despite this, garden gnomes remain popular with the public, and since 1983 regular demonstrations have been held outside the grounds of the Chelsea Flower Show calling for gnomes to be allowed in. In 2013, the RHS temporarily lifted its gnome ban for their 100th Anniversary Show and allowed 100 gnomes, painted and decorated by celebrities such as Helen Mirren, Joanna Lumley and Sir Elton John, loose amongst the planting. The ‘arty’ gnomes were then auctioned off with proceeds to charity. This was, the RHS somewhat sniffily declared, a definite one-off, and the ban continues.
Gnomes at The Chelsea Flower Show, 2013
And so I find myself having some sympathy for the garden gnome. Originally an expensive piece of garden art beloved by the great and good of the Victorian gardening world to becoming, in the words of the author of a National Geographic article from May 2013, “tacky little statues of short bearded men with pointy hats”.
I had thought to pop out and buy one, but Sir Charles certainly seemed to think such creatures were real, and they can be rather creepy, so now I'm not so sure...
* I think it's possible that some of the miniature plants used by Sir Charles may have been 'bonsai'. The term wasn't used at the time - instead, such plants were referred to as "dwarf" or "pygmy" plants, which is how the journals describe many in the rockery.
For Dr Marsh's fascinating blogs on gnomes see links below