‘Kitsch and low brow’? No! Academic shines a light on the rich cultural history of Kiwi garden gnomes

Garden gnomes have had a more complicated past than we’re led to believe.

Since its birth as chi chi as a garden ornament for the wealthy in the mid-19th century, it has been at the center of crime waves for centuries, and at various times has been criticized as hateful, sexist and racist. I’ve been accused of being an atheist and rude.

However, little is known about this, mainly because they have been neglected by scholars and have only recently attracted academic attention.

“The pomp among New Zealand garden historians may partly explain their near-total silence about garden gnomes,” says an associate professor of science at the University of Waikato. says Ian Duggan. He published an academic paper on the cultural history of New Zealand garden gnomes. At the recent Australian and New Zealand History Conference in Hamilton.

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Further evidence of that snobbery can be seen in the UK, added Ian, where gnomes are banned from the Chelsea Flower Show because they are seen as too kitschy and underpaid.

But gnomes have played a role in the history and cultural landscape of our gardens, and they have interesting stories to tell, argued Ian in his paper. And increasingly women) stand guard in the garden, rain or shine, and, like any garden ornament, deserve better recognition by garden historians,” he said. wrote. “Now is the time to rescue garden gnomes from their current neglect and restore them to their rightful place in New Zealand’s garden history.”

The permanence and importance of gnomes in New Zealand culture is demonstrated by Christchurch hosting the first international conference of garden gnomes in 1995, he points out. “The event drew about 200 gnomes and he 8,000 to 10,000 visitors, and was specially visited by Lumpy, the oldest surviving English gnome.”

Lampy’s original owner, Sir Charles Isham, deserves credit for popularizing garden gnomes.

An eccentric, non-smoker vegetarian and averse to sports of all blood, Sir Charles inherited Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire after the suicide of his brother in 1846.

Associate Professor Ian Duggan has written an academic paper on the cultural history of garden gnomes in New Zealand. He collects gnomes and his favorite is Godzilla.

Christel Yardley/STUFF/Waikato Times

Associate Professor Ian Duggan has written an academic paper on the cultural history of garden gnomes in New Zealand. He collects gnomes and his favorite is Godzilla.

His home was decorated with porcelain house gnomes produced in Germany from the late 18th century, as was the fashion of the time, and eventually became popular throughout much of Western Europe as decorative elements for indoor displays. did.

But in 1847 Sir Charles built a rocky outcrop in the garden and moved the porcelain gnomes outside to complement the dwarf and alpine plants there. His garden was published in magazines in the late 1800s, after which the garden his gnomes became a frenzy among gardeners in the country.

Gnomes, made of porcelain or terracotta, usually imported from Germany, were very attractive and expensive. Search eBay today and you’ll find garden gnomes from the late 19th or early 20th century making big bucks. Even in New Zealand, common concrete gnomes from the 1950s are hard to find and highly prized by collectors.

This gnome was released by the Tui beer company.

Christel Yardley/Staff

This gnome was released by the Tui beer company.

Unfortunately, Sir Charles’ daughter disliked the porcelain gnomes and destroyed them when he died in 1903. After World War II, Lumpy was rediscovered, hiding in a crevice in the garden during restoration.

Garden gnomes’ popularity declined rapidly in post-World War I Britain due to their association with Germany. Especially since German soldiers often used gnomes as mascots and took pictures with them as good luck charms.

However, some gardeners still preferred them, including early British immigrants who brought them to New Zealand to decorate their gardens here. It seemed appealing to wealthy garden owners who wanted to brag to others that they owned a garden,” says Ian.

Gnomes have come a long way from an old man in a red hat sitting on a mushroom.

Christel Yardley/STUFF/Waikato Times

Gnomes have come a long way from an old man in a red hat sitting on a mushroom.

They became so popular here that there was a wave of gnome theft, sparking something akin to the media frenzy of the time. It has proven attractive to thieves and pranksters,” adds Ian.

His research uncovered various newspaper advertisements and news articles of the time offering rewards as high as £5 for the return of stolen or runaway gnomes.

Eventually, the gnomes became New Zealand’s first locally made concrete out of concrete. Their prices fell, and so did their popularity among the wealthy elite.

Ian Duggan's love of gnomes was partly driven by his sister's love of collecting all things kitschy.

Christel Yardley/STUFF/Waikato Times

Ian Duggan’s love of gnomes was partly driven by his sister’s love of collecting all things kitschy.

In fact, they fell so unloved that if in 1943 the Lost and Found section of the Oakland Star called again by the man who had taken the gnome and frog statues from the Orakei Gardens, they would have liked the mushroom statues.

However, after World War II, interest in vegetable and ornamental gardening increased in New Zealand. Desperate to make their fortunes in the booming wool industry and return to their quiet pre-war lives, the Kiwi people were once again keen to decorate their outdoor spaces with decorative statutes.

“The dream of owning a quarter-acre lot, which Austin Mitchell called ‘half-gallon quarter-acre Pavlova Paradise’ in his 1972 book of the same name, was boosted by the provision of state housing.” writes Ian in his paper.

Garden catalogs from the 1980s onward show an increasing variety of gnomes on offer.

Christel Yardley/STUFF/Waikato Times

Garden catalogs from the 1980s onward show an increasing variety of gnomes on offer.

Traditionally, gnomes have been depicted as bearded, dwarf-like figures with red pointed hats, says Ian. He added that he had heard from Hamilton’s Australian colleagues about concrete statues depicting Aboriginal Australians, often called Neville and Noelen.

“A lot of Australians at the conference said this is a very worthwhile thing to study, but I don’t think anyone has touched on it yet.”

Garden catalogs from the 1980s onwards show a wide variety of gnomes on offer, ranging from biker gnomes, zombie gnomes, mischievous gnomes, and even female gnomes. Conversely, traditional garden gnomes have permeated pop culture, appearing in New Zealand children’s books and television shows. Today, popular culture influences Norm’s fashion as well. Now it’s easy to find gnomes inspired by Star Trek, Star Wars, and other TV and movies. In fact, Ian says his favorite gnome is Godzilla’s gnome. Of course he eats other gnomes.

But Ian insists that he likes all gnomes. “I’ve always liked gnomes from the time his grandfather brought them home until I discovered them on the first release of Kinder Surprise.”

However, he is still vulnerable to tradition and old Lumpy. “I really want to meet Lumpy. If I ever get the chance to go to England again, I will definitely go to Lumpy. It’s on my list of things to do. He’s one of the things I want to do before I die.”

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