A Fascination with Gnomes (Introduction)

Here is the first installment of an ongoing series of posts about garden gnomes. 

As a cultural object, there’s a lot of about the garden gnome that deserves unpacking. Issues of ideology, class, race, gender, superstition, consumerism and aesthetics are all tightly tucked under that pointy red cap. To understand how these issues come into play, we first need to understand how it has become popular– even polemic— to decorate suburban yards with colorful and diminutive old men.

German garden gnomeWhile clay figures of dwarfs were sold by the German company Baehr and Maresch as early as 1841, a craftsman named Philipp Griebel is generally credited with popularizing the bearded fellows we’re familiar with today. Sir Charles Isham purchased 21 terracotta figures from Griebel in 1847 and brought them back to England, where he proudly displayed them at his estate in the gardens of Lamport Hall.  While Isham’s statues achieved a certain notoriety across the channel,  Griebel founded his own company in 1874 in Gräfenroda, Thuringia (Germany), specializing in the production of decorative ceramics. A sculptor and potter by trade (porzelliner and thierkopfmodelleur), Griebel soon capitalized on his most profitable idea, the  Gräfenroda Gartenzwerge, or garden gnome. From 1884, the gnome featured annually at the Leipzig Trade Fair and rapidly gained popularity throughout Germany and France. By the end of the century, Gräfenroda was a manufacturing hub, exporting gnomes by the dozens.

Griebel’s gartenzwerge were painted with red vests and caps to look like German miners. They were grizzled and friendly-looking good luck charms guaranteed to add a bit of whimsy to the semi-private yards of a new working class of folk less concerned with the dictates of “taste”. What was “taste”, after all, if not the meaningless standard of an aristocratic minority rapidly losing its relevance? The bourgeois appeal of the gnome in Europe was first as a status symbol of land ownership and second as minor rebellion against old ways of thinking. What were these mischievous miners– capitalists or socialists? Maybe both. The origins of these dwarfs, however, hearken to an aesthetic that was assuredly neither, and to a spiritualism that would horrify proponents of both modernist ideologies.

Stone grotesques were a common feature across Europe prior to the 19th century. For example, Salzburg’s Zwerglgarten was created in 1715 by Prince Archbishop Franz Anton Harrach, displaying unflattering sculptures modeled after dwarves who served the Prince as entertainers, as well as peasants and foreigners. Nine of the sculptures can still be viewed in the Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg, Austria. A cousin to Salzburg’s dwarves are the medieval gargoyles characteristic of gothic architecture. Gargoyles have a practical purpose, serving as downspouts on the roofs of tall buildings, churches and cathedrals in particular. But, symbolically, they were also believed to ward off evil spirits. Their typically sinister appearance, depicted as monsters or dragon-ish chimeras, demonstrates this second purpose. Gargoyle statues, in turn, can be traced back to decorative arabesques of Roman origin. These ancient artworks often featured fantastical creatures and grimacing human masks hidden in the folds of elaborate patterns.

Certainly, grotesques represent the prejudices, superstitions and mysticism of the West. But there may be more to it than that. The grotesque aesthetic, according to literary scholar Remi Astruc, challenges our human reality and identity by representing “doubleness, hybridity and metamorphoses”, without fully revealing their significance. They are unrealized, signs that can only be understood in relation to a future reference. In other words, a reflection seen through a mirror, darkly. A glimpse of what may be?

If you’re interested in the history of garden gnomes, by all means, read on to Part 2.

For a fuller and less haphazard account, I would recommend Garden Gnomes: A History by Twigs Way.

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