Of gnomes and statues

Context matters. I photographed this in a garden on a country estate in England. And it did not seem out of place at all there, to my eyes. But is it just a classier form of the garden gnome? 

There I was, bereft of ideas for a post this weekend when a visiting colleague gave me the best quote, which he attributed to the renowned Irish gardener, the inimitable Helen Dillon.

“Statues are just the gnomes of the upper classes.”

We laughed out loud. Of course we did. I did a quick search on line and I see Helen Dillon attributes that statement first, in 2004, to a garden visitor commenting on an aged statue in her garden – a semi clothed woman of Victorian vintage. More recently, she reportedly ascribed the comment “to a friend”. Maybe the visitor went on to become a friend?

We lack both gnomes and statues in our own garden but I have always had some fascination for a good gnome garden. There is one down the way, in my local town of Waitara. I have wondered about calling in and asking permission to photograph it but I just don’t think my motives are sufficiently pure and that makes it discourteous and lacking in respect on my part. You will have to imagine it, instead. It is a much-loved garden and were there a National Collection for gnomes and ornaments, this one would almost certainly qualify. I noticed it one time when the son of the house had carefully cleaned and repainted the entire population and that would be no mean feat, believe me. They gleamed in the sunlight.

Gnome gardens do tend to associate with succulents. I have no idea if this is by choice or chance on the part of the gnomes.

I could only find a single photo of a gnome in my extensive photo files. Clearly I need to rectify this.

Gnomes have a long and somewhat more celebrated history than their current position in gardens suggests. There is a wealth of information on line, should you feel compelled to find out more about gnome history. But there is no denying that their slide in social status has seen them end up pretty close to the lower end, if not right at the bottom.

Classical statuary in NZ gardens is more commonly of this ilk

Which brings us to the statues. New Zealand is no longer the egalitarian society many of us like to pretend but the differences are not so much one of social class as economic status. We are somewhat lacking in the upper classes in this country. Our colonial forebears were more interested in shaking free from the shackles of the class system back in the Old Country and few of the early settlers came from the gentry. There are a few aspirants that linger on, but they are more a curious sub-group than a social and political force. I am pretty sure that if you took a census of New Zealanders and asked what social class they see themselves in, over 90% would declare themselves as middle class. Just as ethnic affiliation is a matter of personal choice in this country (as in, people define which ethnic groups they identify with and there is no reliance on blood quantum), so too is social class. I think it is one of the nicer aspects of living in New Zealand.

Saint Fiacre, I think, again in a grand English garden but by no means uncommon in a miniature form in NZ gardens

But does a reproduction classical statue, or even a figure of Saint Fiacre, make you more middle class than a gnome? That is the question. Many people who would shun Snow White, Grumpy, Sleepy, Dozy, Mick and Titch in the garden clearly believe so. The evidence is there in many, many gardens. What it doesn’t do, in this far-flung island nation of the South Pacific, is make you upper class and that has nothing to do with the dollar price-tag on the statue. Wealth and class should not be confused.

I would suggest that the downward slide in social status of classical statuary continues to take place (prole drift!), just at a slower speed than the rapid descent of the gnome. In this country at least.

We don’t have gnomes in our garden because they only amuse us in other people’s gardens. We don’t have classical statuary because it seems irrelevant to the context of our garden. Each to their own. But we are still chuckling at the Dillon quote

20 thoughts on “Of gnomes and statues

  1. Marion

    I once had a gnome in my garden. Unpainted. I brought it at a school fair, to support the cause more than anything. One of the dads had a gnome mould or something. It also featured a hedgehog and as it weathered away in a discrete corner surrounded by natives, all I could think was it looks like the hedgehog is performing a certain act on the gnome. I know, I need help. Anyway I sent gnome and hog to the scrap heap a few years later and no one noticed.

  2. dinahmow

    You echo my sentiments. Though I did have a few , shall we say, curiously twisted tree stumps, in the former rural garden.
    I see you have a Facebook “share” button, so I will. Thank you.

  3. Dale Lethbridge

    Thank you I love the gnome with a great sense of humour in the glass case??
    The earthy relevance of a Barry Brickell piece in a beautiful green space gives me great pleasure.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      On our one visit to Barry Brickell’s own place (when our children were still young), we spotted his serpents rising out of a pond. We were so taken with them that I wrote to him about them but alas, the price at the time was beyond our more slender means. Certainly we prefer our garden decoration to have more cultural relevance than importing it directly from overseas. And also to have a sense of place.

  4. Marion

    A neighbour chopped down two trees last summer. They were nice trees but very large and close to the house on a small suburban section. One was completely chopped up but the other was left with the stripped trunk about 10 feet high. The guy who had done the felling proceeded to take the chainsaw to the trunk and carved a sort of Nordic god’s head. Never seen garden statuary in Christchurch like that before. There was the guy who made chicken wire and driftwood creations who had a giant moa in his front garden!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I am not so keen on chainsaw “sculpture” but each to their own! It does at least have more local context than repro statues!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Mark and I used to take friends on gnome garden tours. There was a notable gnome garden somewhere near the railway station in our university days in Palmerston North. Then we moved to Gnome Central in Dunedin for 3 years. At least gnomes are gloriously unpretentious.

  5. Pat Webster

    My favourite gnome was a tiny guy tucked under a hedge, almost out of sight, wearing the uniform of the Montreal Canadiens, the hockey team I root for.

    The quote you cite makes me stop and think. Why do people want statuary in their gardens? It’s a practice that dates back many centuries. I like pieces of art in a garden and have many in my own garden in Quebec, but none is figurative. The closest I come to any representational art is using inverted tree trunks to suggest the Abenaki, the original inhabitants of this part of Canada. I don’t have any cupids or cherubs or angels or saints, nor can I imagine adding any. But I agree with you, in many European gardens, those statues seem appropriate and pleasing.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Pat, as I understand it, all the art you have in your garden has been carefully chosen or created and is there because it has many layers of meaning for you. Statuary in gardens is more commonly purely decorative and, as such, entirely derivative and largely impersonal. Canada would be very similar to NZ – these classical, European figures usually have no relevant context in these countries.

      1. Pat Webster

        You are right, Abbie. What I have has been carefully created for the site. A well-known Canadian garden created by Frank Cabot, founder of the American organization, the Garden Conservancy, had a wonderfully amusing take on classical statuary: a metal cut-out of Diana, goddess of the hunt. At the end of a long allée, from some distance it was easy to mistake it for an actual statue. But made of sheet metal, it was transformed into something contemporary.

  6. tonytomeo

    I do happen to like Saint Francis, if for no other reason, to annoy the neighbors who dislike Catholics. Not many know who Saint Fiacre is, and his rare statues are not at all flattering.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Ah well, there is another cultural difference. Saint Fiacre is common here, maybe second only to the Balinese heads that so many people favour to remind them of their Balinese holiday.

  7. Bev Rennie

    Love your posts Abbie! I look forward to them each week as they often give me a good chuckle, plus a wealth of amazing information. I love your writing style and look forward to the book! 😊. Thank you!!

  8. gardenhistoryresearchfoundation

    There has actually been a short history written of garden gnomes in New Zealand. I am sure the author would happily send you a copy if you wrote to them:

    Duggan, I.C. (2016), The cultural history of the garden gnome in New Zealand. Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes 36: 78-88.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Goodness. There are others with a similar fascination for this phenomenon? I find this oddly heartening and would very much like to read this history.

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