Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gnomes

With the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea Flower show on at present, I thought it time to reveal my own installation for the Royal show. Here's an extremely rare photo of a quartet of gnome operators in participatione mystique, caught in celebratory mood having succeeded in performing the alchemical feat of palingenesis. From left to right their identities are believed to be -Arthur an English gardener, Christofini, an Italian shepherd, Ivor a Siberian woodsman and Albrecht an Austrian mountain-guide.

Gnomes have in fact been banned for 19 years from the Chelsea Flower Show, deemed as vulgar or unbecoming to gardens. A press clipping from the Times newspaper May 19th 2009 highlights the present controversy.

'They spoke of little else on the opening day of the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show. The issue? Is it time for the world's premier horticultural event to lift its 19-year ban on garden gnomes. The question has opened a schism in the high command of the gardening fraternity after one of the most respected exhibitors smuggled her “lucky” gnome into the central Grand Pavilion and put him on display. Officially Jekka McVicar, who is on the ruling council of the Royal Horticultural Society is in flagrant breach of the rules by placing her gnome called Borage amid her gorgeous array of organic medicinal and culinary herbs. They clearly state that any “brightly coloured creatures” are out of order and will result in disqualification.

The Royal Horticultural Society, which runs the Chelsea Flower Show, clearly states in its rules that gnomes or any "brightly coloured creatures" are out of bounds at the exhibition, as well as balloons, bunting and flags. The official explanation is that these items may "distract" from the garden designs, but critics suggest the real reason for the exclusion of gnomes is that they have been deemed too tacky for the illustrious flower show.

Dr Lane Fox supported the ban, calling the garden gnome a hideous creation that did not belong in the garden show. Ignoring an interjection by the Today presenter, saying: "That's snobbery", he added: "They [garden gnomes] are kitsch... There's no way we want mass produced gnomes or toadstools." But Mr Rumball objected to the ban, claiming it was sheer snobbery that kept gnomes out. He pointed out that garden gnomes were the pride of 19th-century aristocratic gardens before they fell from grace, and that high-quality antique gnomes were sold for substantial sums to collectors around the world. He said he feared the Chelsea Flower Show was limiting creativity through banning what it deemed to be in bad taste. "Chelsea is all about class. That's why it has banned them. The show is terrific and great fun but one of the reasons why people aspire to Chelsea's pinnacle of gardening is because everyone talks with plums in their mouths, ladies wear lovely clothes and the Queen goes along. All of these things make Chelsea something to aspire to. I'm a great believer in letting people do what they want with their gardens. I would not want gnomes in my garden, but everyone to their own. I don't think what they are putting on at the moment is significantly different from gnomes".

I wonders if all of this really is snobbery. After all snobbery is not a very British trait is it ?If Damien Hurst were to create a diamond-encrusted gnome I bet it would be allowed pride of place at the Chelsea Flower Show! Perhaps the organizers merely object to the commercial success of companies such as Zeho of Coburg, Austria, exporter of millions of mass-made plastic gnomes.

Whether one considers Gnomes to be vulgar, kitsch or merely harmless fun, they were in fact introduced into modern consciousness by the Renaissance physician-alchemist Paracelsus who proposed that a particular spirit resided over each element. Nymphs to rule the water, the Salamander fire, Sylphides the air and Gnomes the earth. Citing Germanic folk-lore Paracelsus claimed that deep in the earth there exists a race of dwarf- like Earth-spirits which he named Gnomes. Ever fond of word-play Paracelsus may have named them from the Greek of genomus or 'earth-dweller'. Alternatively the word Gnome may have originated from the Greek word gnome meaning knowledge and intelligence. According to Paracelsus these little people were the guardians of the earth who knew where precious metals and hidden treasure were buried. He describes them thus-
The gnomes have minds, but no souls, and so are incapable of spiritual development. They stand about two feet tall, but can expand themselves to huge size at will, and live in underground houses and palaces. Adapted to their element, they can breathe, see and move as easily underground as fish do in water. Gnomes have bodies of flesh and blood, they speak and reason, they eat and sleep and propagate their species, fall ill and die. They sometimes take a liking to a human being and enter his service, but are generally hostile to humans.

As ever there is a Sir Thomas Browne connection here. In his vast encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica which sets out to refute popular misconceptions and errors, Browne wrangles with the idea as to whether pygmies actually exist (Book 4 chapter 11). He concludes thus-

and wise men may think there is as much reality in the Pigmies of Paracelsus; that is, his non-Adamical men, or middle natures betwixt men and spirits.


The footnote to this chapter reveals Browne as one well-acquainted with the writings of the Swiss alchemist-physician-

By Pigmies intending Fairies and other spirits about the earth, as by Nymphs and Salamanders, spirits of fire and water. Lib. de Pigmæis, Nymphis, etc.

The first time the actual word 'gnome' occurs in English literature is in Alexander Pope's poem, The Rape of the Lock (1712). An aural depiction of a gnome can be heard in the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's Piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition a musical work better-known through Ravel's imaginative orchestration of 1922.
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