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Gnome alone

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

What's the star possession of the Garden Museum? Everybody has their favourites, but for us it has to be this very handsome gnome. This is the story of how we met him.

In 2016-17, the Garden Museum was closed for an extensive period of renovations. It was around that time that I made an appointment to view their collection of garden gnomes, in conjunction with an exhibition I was curating about a boy wizard (you may have heard of him: Harry Somebody). I arrived at the museum early one morning, in the shadow of Lambeth Palace, and was asked to don a protective hat and boots before I was permitted inside. This was a new experience for me, and I was ushered eagerly through the building site, keen to make the gnomes' acquaintance.

At that time the cases in the gallery were still undergoing re-arrangement, but the Garden Museum's gnomes were already standing to attention as I entered (maybe they knew I was coming to inspect them). I had been especially keen to see three gnomes that had been hand-carved by German prisoners-of-war in the Tower of London in WW1, but I discovered, to my disappointment, that they were beautiful but thumb-sized, and unsuitable for the display we were envisaging. 'Would I be interested instead in the Tony Blair gnome?' the curator asked. Too tacky, I thought. 'How about one of the Disney gnomes?' Too kitsch. Was my trip doomed to fail?

It was at that moment that I turned round and saw out of the corner of my eye a far more impressive gnomely gentleman. 'Ah, he's both our largest and oldest gnome in our museum. He's also historically the most important, made by August Heissner, revered as the inventor of German garden gnomes. Would you like to have him?'

I could have wrapped him up there and then, but we had to wait several months before the chosen gnome was delivered safely to our exhibition. By that stage he had undergone a minor repair to one of his legs, allowing him to travel without fear of being damaged, and he had been equipped with a home-made fishing rod (the original has been lost). He was installed in the Herbology section of our show, and I gave the accompanying label the title 'Gnome alone', because, well, he was on his own, poor chap. While in the exhibition he was viewed by something in excess of 150,000 visitors, among them J.K. Rowling, Stephen Fry, Ezra Miller and Natalie Dormer. He held his composure all the way through and is now back home at the Garden Museum. But I do miss him.

Julian Harrison for Cradles and Labels

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