Author delights members in her Gnome words

By Nub News Reporter

29th Mar 2024 | Local History

AT the March meeting of Thurrock Local Hiostory Society members and guests welcomed back Dr Twigs Way, this time illustrating the history of the garden gnome.

When asked to write a new book, she decided on gnomes and was even consulted on historic creditability by Walt Disney, when he made his film entitled Gnomeo and Juliet.

Their history is unexpected: known as dwarfs in Europe, gnomes in the UK, a history of mythical folk. Dr Twigs Way gave her audience a hilarious romp through the history of the gnome.

The Romans were responsible for putting statues in gardens etc., in bronze or ceramic; also placed in the house, their role being looking after the family. One was Priapus, a fertility god, not tasteful. In the renaissance there was a range of statues in gardens, normalised and painted in garish colours, with some decidedly rude. They were made of lead and melted down when they became unfashionable.

There were grotesque figures, some three feet tall, modelled on real life, i.e. punch, playing musical instruments etc. They fell out of favour in the 18th/19th century and were replaced with porcelain, such as Crown Derby. They were the first figures to be put into gardens as gnomes. Tomte figures had red hats – they were almost fairies, or elves, quite a mix. Mineral miners thought dwarfs brought luck and money for several centuries. They had tall, pointy hats, padded, for safety, carrying lamps etc.

Gnomes were carved like Black Forest items. They were put in houses in the 19th century, brought back from Germany as souvenirs, shown with matchbox holders, place cards etc. Sir Charles Edmund Isham first brought them back and put them in the garden instead of the home. At the time alpine planting was popular; Isham made a huge rockery in the 1850s, putting small figures on it to give scale, including those in porcelain.

There were rave reviews, with gnomes mentioned. In the late 19th century there were 17 manufacturers of garden gnomes, hand painted of moulded ceramic and were expensive. A 1920 illustration showed how various they were, now shown in realistic settings with watering cans etc. They represented relaxation and were very detailed, even in lead.

Sir Frank Crisp was the second person to bring gnomes back to England – an eccentric and wealthy. His Friar Park garden had even larger rock gardens than Isham, modelled on the Matterhorn. The house was once owned by George Harrison, he himself has been depicted as a gnome – maybe the most famous of all gnomes.

In the early 20th century gnomes were found in country house gardens and used by interior designers. In WW1 German units had gnomes as mascots. Their popularity continued between the wars, then were out of fashion. After WW2 concrete was used to make our own gnomes, of poorer quality. They were Disney figures, e.g, Snow White and fairy tales. Nowadays all gnomes have the 'dwarfs' faces. In the 1950s they were made for rockeries, found in public gardens at seaside resorts.

Female gnomes were also made and the 1970s saw plastic and resin ones. We now have a kitsch gnome revival, even America having them, using old German moulds. So, what is a gnome? They are small, colourful, some shown with garden implements, etc., even naughty gnomes, undressed. Gnomes are cuddly, but also represent the occult and spiritualism Their appearance has changed over the years and are now more humanlike with a childish look, like a baby with a beard.

Recently there has been a spate of gnome-napping, with roaming gnomes appearing on websites.

The RHS Chelsea flower show finally allowed gnomes in 2013.

The next meeting is at 7.30 pm on Friday 19 April at St John's Church Hall, Victoria Avenue, Grays, when the AGM will be followed by a talk by Ian Mercer on Essex Rocks. Visitors are welcome.


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