A few years ago, British gardener Vivian Russell noticed something about certain interlopers in her garden — a gaggle of garden gnomes...

Share story

A few years ago, British gardener Vivian Russell noticed something about certain interlopers in her garden — a gaggle of garden gnomes she had moved in as a single shot of fun for a young guest. Despite their silly grins and lowly pedigrees, she didn’t have the heart to send them packing:


“It wasn’t the lead statue of the exquisite angel delicately poised on his stone plinth that caught my eye every time I passed, but that row of perky red hats, pert noses and cheery faces. There they stood, sturdy boots stuck in the soil, ready to lend a hand. One was leaning on his spade, another proffered a watering can, the third held a pot of flowers …


“… I liked having them around and they were such a novelty that I couldn’t stop looking at them. What they brought to my garden was a sense of the ridiculous, which, together with humor, is one of life’s best levellers.”


One thing led to another, and Russell became a collector of gnomes, then a connoisseur of gnomes, then a chronicler of gnomes. The result is her new book, the delightfully strange “Gnomes.”


“Gnomes”

Text and photographs by Vivian Russell
Frances Lincoln, 135 pp., $14.95

As Russell tells it, garden gnomes beached on the shores of England in 1847, when a Sir Charles Isham (“of Lamport Hall”) built a 90-foot rock garden and decided his construction needed animating characters. He went off to Germany, where gnomes were largely porcelain figures confined to the drawing room. Isham took them outside, “grouping them into scenarios, with signs and tableaus of striking miners. Isham was a spiritualist, and believed that his figures represented the gnomes of the spirit world.”


Isham may have been on to something. Gnome theorists believe that gnomes are part of the collective unconscious. They are most thick on the ground in Northern Europe, the home of goblins, trolls, leprechauns, elves, fairies and pygmy miners (and let’s not forget those hobbits).


But the “purest” gnome is the Swedish tomte, a benevolent spirit who watched over Swedish farms but “would only stay if the farmer was kind to his animals, his family and remembered, every Christmas Eve, to put out a bowl of porridge for him to eat.” As small Swedish farms went the way of small farms everywhere, some tomtes moved inside and became Christmas-card fodder for Swedish artists. But many remain in the yard, a symbol of luck.


So Russell included Sweden on her swing through gnome land (this is a person who knows how to have fun). There are some very authentic-looking Swedish tomtes in this book, but gnomes are a peculiarly British obsession.


There are photos of the Gnome reserve in Devon, home to more than 1,000 gnomes. The entrance sign instructs visitors: “Admission — From The House — Also Gnome Hats — Do All Borrow One To Be Appropriately Dressed To Visit The Gnomes.”


There are hospice gnomes, said to provide great comfort to the residents. One hospice gardener, schooled in more sublime elements of garden design, says she has come to terms with their rakish charm: “Although they harbour snails under their hollow feet, spoil her borders with their gaudy colors, and seem to taunt her with their mocking expressions as she weeds, they have, she says, ‘an understanding. We are both in the business of trying to lift the spirits of the dying. They do their thing, I do mine.’ “


And then there is the Brit who Russell says is a gnome, known far and wide throughout the sceptr’d isle for his gnome collection: “A couple of years ago, Selfridges recreated part of his house and back garden for one of their Christmas windows,” Russell writes. “The crowds that gathered round to view the 100 gnomes on display were, at one point, such an obstruction on Oxford Street that the police had to move them on.”


Like any obsession, gnome worship has its dark side. Bands of British gnome rustlers roam the lanes and cul de sacs, stealing or vandalizing gnomes (to stamp out kitsch, or for plain meanness?). This has forced gnomes to migrate to the side and back gardens of British homes, hiding their light, so to speak, behind obscuring veils of ivy, ferns and Vinca minor.


Mostly, though, “Gnomes” reflects the sweeter side of life. Russell’s photographs — gnomes digging in the dirt, swinging in swings, riding pigs, snails and motocross bikes, sunbathing on lily pads and toadstools — have a fey, otherworldly quality. They seem to be eyeing us, cackling slyly from the vantage point of a few centuries back. “Gnomes are optimists,” Russell writes. “They breathe contentment.”


Which brings to mind the gnomes on page 86 of “Gnomes,” a jolly band taking the air in a yard in Troon, Scotland. A marble plaque beside them sums up what the gnomes have to teach us:


Today is the
Tomorrow we
Worried about
Yesterday
And all is well.