Unruly Sweet Peas

Alison Light

  • The Gardens of the British Working Class by Margaret Willes
    Yale, 413 pp, £25.00, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 18784 7

Lampy, just a couple of inches tall, is the last of his tribe, and is now immured in a glass cabinet a long way from his German homeland. He was one of the porcelain Gnomen-Figuren brought to Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire in the 1840s to populate the huge rockery, fissured with crevices and ravines, which Sir Charles Isham created in front of his bedroom window. The rockery reflected Isham’s love of the Alpine but he was also widely read in folklore, a believer in spiritualism and convinced of the existence of ‘mine fairies’. Vegetarian, against blood sports, and a supporter of workers’ rights, Isham was generally thought to be potty – and after his death his daughter destroyed all Lampy’s fellows.

The craze for collecting gnomes grew among the upper classes until the First World War put the kibosh on anything German. In the 1930s they staged a comeback lower down the social scale, appearing in suburban and municipal gardens, bent over their spades and forks in regulation red hats and green waistcoats (John Major’s father was a gnome-fancier, founding Major’s Garden Ornaments in 1930). The arrival of concrete and then plastic saw their once fine features blunted for the mass market and today’s gnome population, Twigs Way tells us in Garden Gnomes: A History (2009), is migratory. Usually made in China, they arrive in our garden centres via factory outlets in Eastern Europe, and in a shift familiar to postmodern theorists, they have become images not of healthy toil but of leisure, reclining on deckchairs, strumming guitars or baring their bottoms with knowing vulgarity. Once stand-ins for the invisible tribes of gardeners who made the estate garden possible, they no longer know their place.

Like gnomes, garden historians used to be captives of the country house, content to write admiringly of the design and management of the grounds, their landed owners and specialist plantsmen. In the last twenty or thirty years, this has changed. ‘Garden history has been overly aristocratic,’ declared Jane Brown, whose Pursuit of Paradise (1999) proposed a social history of gardening that could be both ‘popular and nostalgic’. She took her inspiration from G.M. Trevelyan’s English Social History, referring to the delights of his medley of topics: ‘the state of the roads, the game laws, women’s labour, sanitation, cheap gin, building fashions’. Garden historians should be as much at home in Edwardian villadom or in the borders of an interwar semi as at Stowe or Stourhead; they should understand the garden as a text as well as a territory, as a site of activity in our culture and as a symbol in art and literature – ‘digging and daydreaming’, Brown called it. Her sentiments were echoed in the universities. Scientists, archaeologists and botanists joined art and architectural historians to look beyond conservation and restoration to the archives of popular groups such as gardening and horticultural societies, the history of the kitchen garden or the allotment and the contents of the garden shed. The myth of the native English garden was undermined as the provenance of its plants – tulips, carnations and anemones were brought here from the Middle East in the 16th century – made clear the international nature of collecting; natural history branched into imperial history. Gnomography is just one recent species of garden history’s shift into cultural studies. The biographies of plants in the gorgeous botanical series published by Reaktion are another. Kasia Boddy’s Geranium (2013) follows the scarlet zonal pelargonium from the South African Cape to the hothouses of wealthy collectors, its arrival in the windowboxes of the poor and in local parks, its starring role in painting, literature and cinema, and its place in the manufacture of food and perfume. (Lily, Pine and Bamboo are among the other titles; Apple is out this month.)

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