When I received Gnomes as a gift in 1976, it ignited my imagination. I not only loved the total appearance and creativity of the work, but Wil Huygen’s words and Rien Poortvliet’s illustrations reached out from the pages and carried me into a secret, fantastical world.
Nearly 40 years later, the book has that same hold on me — and more. I revisited the book while cleaning out a bookshelf. Just flipping through the pages brought me back to the wonder I felt as a 13-year-old boy.
And as I’ve moved along in life — trying with all of my might to hold onto that childhood wonder — gnomes have moved along, as well — into movies (Gnomeo and Juliet), advertising (Travelocity), countless YouTube spoof videos that warn of an impending gnome attack (FYI: gnomes are nice; clowns, not so much), and controversy (as a result of a recent appearance at the Chelsea Flower Show).
Clearly, gnomes are big.
No one knows this more than Dr. Twigs Way, author of Garden Gnomes: A History (Shire Publications, 2009). Although she is an accomplished garden historian, author, researcher, and lecturer on so many garden topics, it’s her gnome knowledge that has Dr. Way leading the way in any gnome discussion.
NGDM: You’ve had a fascinating life and career as an archaeologist, educator, lecturer, gardener, historian, author — but I have to tell you, you also seem to be the Queen of the Gnomes. Did you ever imagine that you would be the go-to person for all things gnome?
TW: No, the gnome connection was pure fluke! I was casting around for a subject for a new book for my publishers, Shire Books, and asked the Garden Museum what subject they were most frequently asked for a book on — the reply was “A History of Gnomes.” My publishers were a little taken aback but were game to go with it and we have never looked back!
NGDM: My first introduction to gnomes was a statue in my grandmother’s garden — and then Gnomes was published. The words of Wil Huygen and the illustrations by Rien Poortvliet completely captured my imagination. When did your interest in gnomes begin?
TW: As above, really. Gnomes had not really crossed my path until then, although of course I had seen them in people’s gardens and have a distant memory of the gnomes in the pleasure gardens on the Isle of Wight — seen on family holidays in the ‘60s.
NGDM: When you were writing your own book, Garden Gnomes: A History, did anything surprise you in your research?
TW: Lots of things surprised me! Mainly how inextricably linked with the wider context of social history they are.
I guess the most surprising were the photographs we discovered of German soldiers of the 1st World War holding gnomes as “mascots.” It made perfect sense, as gnomes (actually dwarfs in Germany) were all made in Germany in the 19th century, and originated there as harbingers of good luck. Because of that association, though, gnomes became very unpopular in England after the war.
The links with George Harrison (the Beatles) were pretty amazing, as well. He bought the large country house of Friar Park which had been lived in in the 19th and early 20th century by the scientist and horticulturalist (and eccentric) Sir Frank Crisp. Sir Frank had had some of the large German gnomes in the garden, and for a photoshoot for an album cover George Harrison included the gnomes. He also went on to write “Ballad for Sir Frankie Crisp.”
NGDM: Gnomes were recently allowed to return to the Chelsea Flower Show after a 100-year ban — and this was big news on your side of the Atlantic, but not so much in the States. To read much of the commentary, the inclusion of gnomes sounds a bit like a civil rights victory for gnomes and their allies. Why was their inclusion such a big deal in England?
TW: It certainly stirred an enormous amount of media interest – the RHS Chelsea is the most prestigious garden design and horticultural show of the year. That gnomes could be included opened up all sorts of questions about what is taste and how does it change, what is garden design, who is it for, who “judges” it. Recently, for example, Chelsea has had a “People’s Choice” category each year and the winner (voted for by visitors rather than the official judges) is never the same as the judge’s choice of overall winner. Personally, I am quite happy with that as the judges look at a range of criteria rather than just the “oooh” factor, which is what the public mainly chooses for, but it does lead us to fundamental questions about these large garden shows and indeed garden design in general.
Incidentally, the previous ban was not just on gnomes but on all “highly coloured mythical creatures” — though notably bronze sculptures of elves and fairies have long been allowed in, as bronze artworks were seen as tasteful. The ban is now back in place, having just been raised for one year as part of a charity auction of hand-painted gnomes.
NGDM: Are you surprised that the lifting of the ban barely made a whisper in American media? Do you think American and British gardeners look at garden gnomes differently?
TW: In fact the media interest was much wider than the UK. I was contacted by radio stations from around the world for interviews. America, Canada, New Zealand, Spain, etc., etc., and the BBC World Service.
England combines a fitful awareness of the complexities of class and taste with a long history of garden design and extant historic gardens (notably visited by all classes) and so any issue relating to gardens will engender media coverage here.
NGDM: With each passing year, gnomes seem to be everywhere and in all sorts of styles. Traditional. Irreverent. Humorous. Even zombies, which are way too creepy for me. I’m more of a traditionalist when it comes to gnomes. How do you like your gnomes?
TW: Very traditional — preferably slightly faded and with all their clothes on!
NGDM: How many gnomes are in your garden? Do you have one gnome that is particularly special to you?
TW: None – I have yet to find that special gnome for my garden. I saw my perfect gnome once but he was much loved by the family he was with and is not available for adoption.
NGDM: As much as I love gnomes, I am, sadly, gnomeless. How do I go about selecting the right gnome for me?
TW: Wait and one will come to you.
NGDM: Garden gnomes are often thought of as more appropriate for a whimsical garden. In fact, just the mention of a garden gnome can pit gardeners against one another. Do you think there will ever be a time when a gnome can find acceptance in any style of garden?
TW: It probably depends on what you envisage as “gnome.” Certainly, brightly coloured small “Disney-style gnomes,” or those with modern characteristics, such as football shirts, or the “naughty gnomes” might not fit easily into a garden with a muted colour scheme, for example, or one with many antique or stonework features. However, many gardens of that type do include stone statuary and a gnome is just a statue by another name. As the original gnomes were a form of grey or earthy coloured ceramic mould, and may indeed have been partly based on the “grotesque” statues of the Italian Renaissance, then why not that type of gnome for the more muted garden? Our present “tastes” are largely for unpainted garden ornament, but looking back to the Romans, for example, they had numerous brightly coloured statues of gods, goddesses and other mythical figures in their small town gardens — some quite frankly far ruder than present day naughty gnomes. So maybe our tastes will turn again! However, I don’t think you can ever put a feature into a garden that jars with the rest of the design or planting — so any gnome or statue must be in keeping with the rest of the garden style.
NGDM: As I said earlier, you began your career as an archaeologist. So, please be honest, are our modern day garden gnomes based on an actual tribe of little folk that once walked the earth?
TW: People have tried to suggest that the German Dwarf (that forms the basis for the English gnome) was inspired by a smaller race of peoples that came from southern Europe to work the mines in prehistoric central Europe — but that would not explain the spread across Europe of elves, other mythical folks.
Almost all countries have folk histories, whether they be elves, dwarfs, gnomes, tomte, leprechauns, fairies, etc. — especially the northern and central European cultures. These “little folk” seem to answer some kind of need for a personification of the wildness that used to be all around us. I guess, to a certain extent, you could say they were real in that they formed an important part of folk culture.
To learn more about Dr. Twigs Way and all that she does, please take a moment to visit her website.