Love them or loathe them, garden gnomes have been part of our culture for well over a hundred years. They've adorned rockeries and shrubberies everywhere from stately homes and Gothic mansions to suburban semis and council houses. But over the last decade, the ceramic chappies with ZZ Top beards have been falling out of favour.
At the 2006 Chelsea Flower Show, the Oxford academic and gardening expert Robin Lane Fox described them as a "hideous" creation and said, "There's no way we want mass-produced gnomes or toadstools [at the show]". But the real clincher came in November 2006 when a study from the Radio Times found that having a gnome in your garden could potentially knock £500 off the value of your home.
More recently, research from Clydesdale Bank found that Scots are turning their backs on the garden gnome – apparently, 69 per cent of homeowners north of the border would show them the garden gate.
So, does all this mark the end for gnomes? Not according to Ann Atkin, who runs the Gnome Reserve (www.gnomereserve.co.uk) attraction in Devon, which is in the Guinness World Records book for having over 2,000 garden gnomes on display. She says that business is booming: "We sell lots of gnomes at the reserve. People still buy them. You hear all this business going on [that they're in decline]. But it's not true. People were saying they were going out 20 years ago."
But the fact remains that the garden gnome has an image problem. Up-market gardeners wouldn't be seen dead with one in their herbaceous border. Bob Sweet, head of shows development at the Royal Horticultural Society, makes no bones about it: "We feel that the more garish and brightly coloured gnomes ... can be quite an offensive distraction to what might be termed a very stylish garden."
It was due to derisory comments such as this that mainstream demand for gnomes started dipping in the late Nineties – with sales all but drying up by 2005. The ridicule got to the point that they became the target of pranks, with gnomes even being "gnome-napped" and photographed in exotic locations around the world. But then, two years ago, Tesco decided to sell a small range of garden gnomes to see what the reaction would be. "We were astounded when the demand just grew and grew," said Darren Atherton, Tesco's gardening buyer at the time. "We had such a small stock that our initial batch sold out in the first week, and we had to re-order three times to keep up with demand."
The beleaguered garden gnome has another champion in Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, the flamboyant TV presenter and interior designer. He's loved gnomes since he was a child – and goes to some lengths to collect them. While filming in Northern Ireland recently, he was on the lookout to add to his collection. "We searched all over for them and eventually we found a small hardware store in Fermanagh," he says. "The owner took me into a dusty corner and there were all these gnomes – I just went crazy for them." The find inspired him to bring out his own range of garden gnomes. Although the project is still at discussion stage, he is determined to revamp what he considers to be a typically British phenomenon. "I am desperate to reinvent the gnome," he says. "It's been a comedy item for a long time, but its kitschdom is great. I love taking design snobbery and converting it."
Gnomes can be traced back to the stories of dwarves, elves, trolls and giants from Scandinavian and Germanic folklore. But they made their first appearance as garden ornaments during the early 1800s in the German town of Graefenroda, known for its ceramics.
By 1872, August Heissner and Phillip Griebel, both German manufacturers, were turning them out in large quantities to feed the popular demand that had sprung up in the country. But it was Sir Charles Isham who first brought gnomes to Britain from Germany in the late 1860s. He placed them among the caves and bonsai trees in the rock garden of his Northamptonshire estate. An ardent spiritualist, he believed that porcelain gnomes were representations of real life entities.
Ann Atkin of the Gnome Reserve believes gnomes also offer a welcome escape from the stress of modern times. "Gnomes are a break from all the cares and troubles of the world," she says. "Everyone who comes up the drive of the Reserve starts to smile as soon as they see the first gnomes."
Where to buy a gnome of your own
Gnomes "R" Us
Part of the Gnome Reserve attraction in Devon. Gnomes are made of resin and come in all shapes and sizes. All are frost- and weatherproof. Height: 10-40cm. Price: £3.25 to £24.50.
Isle of Wight Ceramics www.isleofwightceramics.com
Small range of intricately painted "alternative" gnomes that look like mini Gandalfs. Height: 38cm. Price: £28.
Hand-painted traditional gnomes made from terracotta, resin or rubberised plastic. Toadstools are also available. Height: 14-36cm. Price: £9 to £26.50.
Gnome City www.gnomecity.com
Small line of hand-painted gnomes made from a tough polyresin mix based on stone. Height: 10-12cm. Price: £4.99.Reuse content