Although this post is about Sir Charles Isham, it’s also about garden gnomes. If you didn’t smile at the thought of a whole blogpost about twee garden ornaments in dubious taste, you probably grimaced or shuddered at the prospect because gnomes do seem to have the ability to cause strong and divisive reactions. Indidentally why is it gnomes and not elves, sprites, pixies, boggarts, goblins, or leprechauns who live by the side of garden ponds, or lurk in our shrubberies?
There are plenty of books and websites about gnomes – which of course are now quite big business – but generally they are not really interested in their history and make little reference back to any documentary or material evidence. That’s a great pity as the real story of their introduction to Britain is fascinating. So, if you haven’t worked out the connection yet between the little men in red hats and Sir Charles read on and find out more about the origin of the gnome in our gardens…
The person who is probably most to blame for the presence of gnomes in our gardens – sorry let me rephrase that – the person who is probably mostly responsible is a wonderfully eccentric Victorian aristocrat called Sir Charles Isham.
In 1846, following the death of his elder brother, Isham inherited the family estate at Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire. Lamport began as a Tudor manor house, but has been adapted and enlarged and now is best known for its classical frontage. He was already a keen horticulturist and he very soon started developing the grounds.
In 1847 Sir Charles began to create the largest alpine garden in England claiming to be inspired by the work of John Claudius Loudon. Now, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that Loudon had very decided views on most things and ‘rockwork’ was no exception.
Isham definitely began following Loudon’s advice by using local ironstone for his construction. He was on a little more contentious ground when he built a high craggy wall, perhaps to resemble a ruined building rising up out of the lawn close to the house. Imitating ruins was NOT one of Loudon’s favourite things, even if it was done by the owner’s own fair hands.
On the cooler north facing side of this wall Isham then created what he called “an assemblage of small caves, crevices, excavations and inequalities, carpeted and incrusted with vegetation suited to the purpose.” There were two main slopes within the rockery, divided by a cascade of rocks tumbling down into a chasm. All this, every last stone and plant, was put in place by Sir Charles himself, or under the very closest personal supervision, and it provided the view from his bedroom window.
He was very careful to follow Loudon’s injunctions about the need to judiciously replicate nature and avoid ‘fantastic’ or ‘savage’ rocks, although several of the caves were crystal and “formed of quartz which sparkle with dazzling effect when the sun’s rays light upon them”.
[If you’re interested in the rest of Loudon’s theories about what was acceptable and what was not then follow the link under the image below]
Once the structure was completed Sir Charles seems to have been on a mission, and over the next fifty years he carried on developing the rockwork and its planting. By the time he had finished Strand Magazine questioned “whether any other garden the world over contains features of such peculiar interest as the one that for half a century has been the loving care of Sir Charles Isham, Bart.” And of course the main feature was “the unique rockery”. The “only place that in way bears a likeness to Sir Charles Isham’s curious production is in Austria, and was made by the Emperor’s gardener but expert testimony says that it is far inferior”. [Other quotes in the post come from The Strand Magazine, Feb 1900 unless otherwise stated.]
It is difficult to get a real sense of the immense scale on which Sir Charles was working: the rockery was about 90ft long, over 40ft wide and 24 ft high, yet at the same time the planted area was so small “that until the visitor almost enters the gate that leads to the rockery he fails to realise its existence.” This, incidentally, made it difficult to photograph – and the famous picture of the elderly Sir Charles sitting high up and apparently “at least 100 yards away” was in fact taken from only 10 yards away from him.
The scale is further distorted by the choice of planting. Everything was in miniature with even the largest conifers being no more than 3ft high in 1900, despite their age. It included many rarities such as Agave utahensis which was only 5 inches after 15 years growth.
Had Isham stopped there Loudon might have been happy, but of course he didn’t. His most famous addition were the unusual souvenirs he bought back from a trip to Germany. No-one is quite sure when this was but it’s likely to have been the 1850s.
I’m sure Strand Magazine was right when it claimed that it was these “fairy or gnome like figures which people the sides of the rockery or peep from the miniature caves” that the visitor would most remember, looking “upon them much like a Gulliver amongst the Lilliputians.” What might surprise you to learn is that these first gnomes were designed as small interior ornaments or even good luck charms, house gnomes rather than garden gnomes. They come from a long tradition of miniature grotesque figurines, often only a few inches high that was extant in England as well as Germany. The figures that Sir Charles first imported may well have come from a Dresden based company Baehr & Maresch who started producing their own version of these around 1841.
It seems Isham continued to add to his collection of figurines throughout his time at Lamport. Unfortunately there are no extant catalogues until the later 19thc so its difficult to know who else Sir Charles was buying from but it was probably largely German manufacturers. [If you want to know more about these early makers the best place to start is Twigs Way’s Garden Gnomes (2009) in the Shire Library series.]
So what did Isham do with these figures?
In their native Germany gnomes were associated with mining and Sir Charles followed up on that tradition by setting them out in tableaux all over the rockery.
They clambered up ladders, others worked with pick and shovel, some in chains mined in the caves and crevices, whilst yet more sat around the well smoking their pipes and generally “produced a life-like effect”. Some even had “poetic descriptions” placed by them.
Isham was an enlightened landlord and employer, so perhaps it is not surprising that he created another more amusing tableaux, showing a group of mining gnomes on strike. One carries a banner reading “Eight hours sleep, eight hours play, eight hours work, eight shillings pay”. Strand Magazine commented “it seems ony to want the paid agitator”.
The gnomic presence is first documented in the Cottage Gardener for September 1859, and there is another account in 1872 in the Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener and Country Gentleman.
In 1898 Country Life was to describe the rockery as “a disconcerting eruption” but in its 1952 account of Lamport it hardly merits a mention.
Incidentally in case you are wondering how they were photographed. G.S.Garrett, the photographer for Strand Magazine “was obliged to use a box, and in some cases a stone, instead of a camera stand. His lens was placed within a few inches of the figures and his trouble was to photograph them without actually enlarging them.”
Once again if Sir Charles had stopped there we’d simply have thought he was mildly eccentric, but once again he went further. He was a spiritualist and served on the Council of the British National Association of Spirtualists which was established in 1873. It was a popular belief system at the time which attracted many prominent members of society, including a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the star of a forthcoming post Sir Frank Crisp. It seems to included a belief in the existence of fairies, gnomes and other non-human life forms.
Sir Charles wrote a small booklet – Notes on Gnomes and Remarks on Rock Gardens printed on a spirit duplicator at Lamport, celebrating his passion and claiming that the gnomes were the rockeries “chief attraction” and its “most characteristic feature.” But he is adamant that had they been imaginary creatures he would not have permitted them into the Lamport rockery!
In an article for the spiritualist journal Medium and Daybreak (1889) Isham wrote of his belief that that mines were inhabited by races of tiny beings who by their lights and knockings led miners to the best mineral seams underground. These creatures had been frequently heard, and sometimes even seen. He cites the evidence of Emma Hardinge Britten, a well known medium, who had investigated the phenomenon of gnomes in some Hungarian mines, and that of William Howitt who had investigated the strange goings-on in a Derbyshire miner’s cabin .
Countering claims that those who believed in the existence of gnomes and other non-human life forms he wrote “Although the nature of gnomes is at present very obscure it, like all other occult phenomena, is receiving attention throughout the world. Seeing such things is no longer an indication of mental delusion but rather EXTENSION OF FACULTY.”
Isham enjoyed a long and happy marriage but when his wife died in 1898 and both his surviving daughters married, he decided to give up his beloved rockery and move to live with his younger daughter, Emily. She had married the 23rd Macleod of Macleod, whose ancestral home was Dunvegan Castle on Skye. But presumably having had enough of draughty castles and preferring somewhere more modest they moved to “The Bungalow” in Horsham where Sir Charles died in 1903.
That was the end of the gnomes too. His daughters apparently did not appreciate their many finer qualities and the gnomes were removed, fate unknown but probably fatal! Clearly the daughters were not spiritualists or they’d have had second thoughts about murdering the poor things.
All would then probably have been forgotten except that in the 1950s Sir Gyles Isham set about restoring the hall and its garden. In excavating and recovering the structure of the rockery, in a crevice one tiny figure was found to have eluded the grand clearance. Known as Lampy he now resides in the house, in the care of the Lamport Hall Preservation Trust, except when he is attending gnome conventions in other corners of the globe, and proudly claims to be the earliest garden gnome in England.