I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
To set oneself up as an arbiter of good taste is to invite raucous bellows of criticism. So, one treads gingerly into passing judgement on garden decorations, but judgement must be passed; honesty demands it.
The whole point of gardening is to create something that is pleasing to the eye and the soul. Artificial ornamentation detracts from the natural beauty of the plants. Let the flowers speak for themselves without the aid of fly-fishing dwarves, snarling winged gargoyles, or a ring of dancing fairies.
The World of Gnomes
Always elderly, always male, always bearded, always wearing a conical hat, gnomes outnumber all other lawn ornaments.
Garden gnomes first appeared in Germany in the 19th century but have emigrated to all parts of the world. Sir Charles Isham introduced 21 of the little earthenware critters to the grounds of Lamport Hall in England during Victoria’s reign. As a spiritualist, Sir Charles believed they possessed protective powers.
It’s said there are more than 25 million of these goblins in their home country alone, although who took the trouble to count them is not clear. Is it something Germans add to their periodic census? “We have husband, wife, two teenage boys, and 12 gnomes.”
So, overpopulation seems to have triggered massive emigration from their native land.
There are “combat gnomes” armed with automatic weapons, handguns, and even rocket launchers; these are favourites among members of the National Rifle Association.
How about a gnome face-down in the soil with its bare bum in the air? Nothing says suave and stylish people live here more than a couple of mooning elves in the front yard.
Gnomes in a rage are all the rage. In addition to those packing heat, you can buy a statue of a group of the little fellows gorging on the bloody entrails of a pink flamingo they have killed. Of course, zombie gnomes were bound to make an appearance, their faces covered in gore.
Not surprisingly, garden gnomes got a bad reputation for being déclassé. But, Ann Atkin works to restore the dignity of horticultural elves. She operates the Gnome Reserve & Wild Flower Garden in England, an attraction that pulls in 30,000 visitors a year who are happy to pay to look at 1,000 gnomes they could see for free at any garden centre.
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The Garden Gnome Liberation Front would surely like to get into Ms. Atkin’s property. It was founded in the 1990s to free the miniature statues from captivity. Stealthily, the little chaps are removed from gardens and released into the wild, a place, if we were given to dreadful puns, we might call gnome man’s land.
The origin of the African-American lawn jockey is murky but it does seem to date back to a time when slavery was the normal and acceptable way of things.
The statuettes display exaggerated features and jet black skin. Dressed in white trousers, white shirt, and a bright red jacket the jockey usually holds a lantern.
In a more enlightened age, lawn jockeys have become symbols of racism and are remembrances of discrimination and Jim Crow laws. As a result, some black jockeys have been given a paint job and now have pink skins. Others have been relegated to the back of the garden shed where they and the gnomes belong.
Manufacturers have caught on and now supply a range of white jockeys with Caucasian features. A line of Hispanic jockeys has also been added.
But the black lawn jockey may have a noble provenance. Some say these statues were used to mark the route of the Underground Railroad that slaves followed to freedom in Canada. Others say they commemorate the exploits of a young black man named Tom “Jocko” Graves who joined George Washington in the War of Independence against the British.
There are lots of people who turn their noses up at commercial decorations and express themselves through their own ingenuity. Let’s go on a mystery tour of the internet and see what we can find.
In June 2016, two giant terracotta Chia heads appeared at the Fifield House Farm near Windsor, England. It’s said they are of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip although to the critical eye their identities are not immediately apparent.
There’s someone (name and location not disclosed) who clearly thought the stork with the bundle of joy in its beak was chintzy, so he designed his own birth announcement. How to describe it? It’s similar to the view an obstetrician might have of the child’s arrival. One can imagine the scene in the recovery room. “Honey, let me tell you about the ornament I put on the front lawn.” Let’s discreetly leave because it may be some time before he regains consciousness.
There’s a home in Melbourne, Australia, where the owners commissioned the making of a replica of Michelangelo's David. It’s not a very good copy although its anatomically correct nature has caused quite a stir in the tony neighbourhood.
Tackiness Reigns Supreme
Commercial enterprises plumb the depths of bad taste.
There are cutouts of fat ladies bending over the flower bed flashing their bloomers to the passing world. Who doesn’t want one of those?
Or a gargoyle with a finger up his nose looking for something he seems to have misplaced. Bliss.
Cartoon characters from Bambi to Homer Simpson sprout from the greensward in increasing profusion. Little boys relieving themselves are considered a charming addition to any garden. Squirrels, frogs, rabbits, and strangely misshapen deer are always popular.
Around Christmas, we get inflatable Santas, snow globes, nativity scenes, and snowmen. They sit there, waiting for some juiced-up lummox on his way home from the pub to stick something sharp into them. (Note to self: deflate before bedtime).
But, some people free themselves from store-bought kitsch and create their own garden abominations. So, toilets get turned into planters and carry sophisticated punnage such as “Pootunias” or “Sweet Pee.”
Thousands of homemade windmills, lighthouses, and wishing wells emerge from hibernation every spring.
And then, of course, there are the flamingos.
- Plastic flamingos were born in 1957 in Leominster, Massachusetts, a community that calls itself the Plastics Capital of the World. Sculptor Don Featherstone was hired by Union Plastics to design the bird. Massachusetts is famous for its lack of live flamingos so Featherstone used a photo feature in National Geographic as his model.
- The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) sets the international gold standard of garden design and trends and bills itself as “a learned society and a purveyor of excellence in horticulture.” In 2013, for the first time in its more than 200-year existence, the RHS lifted its ban on gnomes at its world-renowned Chelsea Garden Show. The Daily Mail reported that “Celebrities will be invited to decorate the diminutive gentlemen . . . and a parade of 150 of them will be lined up for official inspection by the Queen.”
- “The Secret History of the Garden Gnome.” Der Spiegel, March 29, 2006.
- “The Tacky History of the Pink Flamingo.” Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2012.
- “Welcome Gnome! Chelsea Flower Show Lifts Ban on ‘Tacky’ Garden Ornaments for First Time in 100-year History.” Valerie Elliott, Mail Online, February 10, 2013.
- “David and Goliath Battle over Four-metre Granite Statue in Melbourne Front Yard.” Leith Marshall, Nine News, July 9, 2015.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor
Don't Give Gnomes as Gifts!!!! on June 18, 2019:
To all you garden gnome loving twits,
Don't give those tacky, low-rent, pwt, trashy, crappy statues to other people as gifts!! Out of kindness you are forcing them to display them and lower their property to your unsophisticated standards. Stop it. I'm begging you.
q on February 18, 2019:
Ayana B from Michigan on November 19, 2016: