Ian Duggan, Te Aka Mātuatua – School of Science, The University of Waikato
Loved by some, abhorred by others, garden gnomes are iconic components of suburban gardens in many parts of the world, including England, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Despite their popularity, however, little attention has been paid to gnomes by scholars of garden history outside of England, and no mention is made of them in most of the books dedicated to New Zealand’s garden histories. To fill this gap, I published an article in 2016 titled ‘The Cultural History of the Garden Gnome in New Zealand’, from which I provide some brief highlights, below.
The garden gnome in history
Garden gnomes have traditionally been depicted as bearded ‘dwarf-like’ human figures, male, with a red pointed hat, a representation that has diversified in recent years. The first ornaments we might recognise as ‘garden gnomes’ were being produced from porcelain in Germany by the late 18th century, although these were not intended as garden ornaments, but as ‘house dwarfs’, for indoor display. The first gnomes constructed for outdoor use date to around 1840. These were encountered by English tourists and exported across Europe and to America by 1860. The first outdoor garden gnomes in England, however, belonged to the eccentric Sir Charles Isham; he initiated a rockery to his home in 1847 to which, as a complement to its dwarf and alpine plants, he introduced a number of house dwarfs. This garden featured in magazines in the late 1800s, and these articles are thought to be responsible for the popularity of garden gnomes in English stately homes from this time.[i]
The first advertisements for garden gnomes in New Zealand appeared only in 1931. While today gnomes are generally considered ‘cheap’, the individuals advertised in 1930s New Zealand were anything but, and they were reported as residing in the homes of prominent, wealthy individuals. This was markedly different from England in the 1930s, by which time garden gnomes had lost much of their privileged status, and had moved from the stately homes onto suburban lawns or amusement parks.
The earliest mention of garden gnomes, in situ, was at Wellington’s ‘Homewood’ gardens, owned by Mr Benjamin Sutherland, a New Zealand-born chain-store pioneer.[ii] Sutherland bought ‘Homewood’, in the Wellington suburb of Karori, in 1928, commissioning Christchurch landscape gardener Alfred Buxton to ‘lay out the whole garden, and no expense was spared’. In the early 1930s, between 12 and 20 men worked on the garden for a period of two years to build, among other structures, three walled gardens, as well as grottos and glow-worm caves, a large white-tiled swimming pool and 18 aviaries housing hundreds of birds. Sutherland held regular open days and charity events at his residence.[iii] In March 1932, Wellington’s Evening Post correspondent described a fundraising event for the ‘Free Ambulance’, and a special garden inhabitant: ‘The grey, battlemented house, with the stone lions in front, was well set in vivid borders of flowers, while the sardonic looking gnome, who presides over the fish pond, seemed to smile at the rain …’[iv] Several other reports of the gnomes at Sutherland’s property, as well as in the properties of other wealthy citizens, continued into the early 1940s.
An interesting theme in New Zealand newspapers, new and old, is of the theft of garden gnomes. Surprisingly, their disappearance began soon after their first availability, in the 1930s. A ‘Lost and Found’ notice appeared in the Evening Post in 1935, offering a ‘good reward’ for ‘information leading to the recovery of Two Garden Ornaments, one Gnome and Toadstool, removed from the Garden of 186 The Terrace’.[v] Similarly, the Hutt News provides a further report of theft in December 1939, advertising a reward of £5 for a 4-ft high garden gnome from a private residence in Lower Hutt.[vi] Three days later, the reward was again offered in the Evening Post, which included a photo of the gnome.[vii] This trend continues today, with regular articles still appearing of gnomes lost, gnomes found but with owners unknown, as well as gnomes reunited with their owners.
From the 1940s, garden gnomes became more widely available in New Zealand, and began to be constructed of concrete. It was at this stage that the gnomes appeared to lose their elite status.
If you want to read more about garden gnome history in New Zealand, email the author for a copy of the article.
[i] Twigs Way, Garden Gnomes: A History (Oxford: Shire Library, 2009), 56 pp.
[ii] ‘Garden Parties for Free Ambulance: Weather Intervenes’. Evening Post (7 March 1932), p. 3.
[iii] Beryl Smedley, Homewood and its Families. (Wellington: Mallinson Rendel, 1980), p. 103; Rupert Tipples, Colonial Landscape Gardener; Alfred Buxton of Christchurch, New Zealand 1872-1950. (Lincoln College, Christchurch, 1989). pp. 101-106.
[iv] ‘Garden Parties for Free Ambulance: Weather Intervenes’, Evening Post (7 March 1932), p. 3.
[v] ‘Advertisements’. Evening Post (27 February 1935), p. 1.
[vi] ‘Advertisements: Stolen: Reward £5’. Hutt News (13 December 1939), p. 8.
[vii] Evening Post, 16 December 1939.