Sunday, 16 October 2011

Gnome lover

The first garden I truly admired was a gnomery I saw in the early 1960s. As a little boy I was awestruck by the hundreds, literately hundreds, of brightly coloured little figures looking at me behind one Welsh gnome-garden fence.  Perhaps this early memory left me with a lasting affection for these fun-loving ornaments as I have since acquired several examples which populace parts of my house and garden. My interest led me to writing a brief history of the gnome for the Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens in 2002. There have been many, so called, jocular studies of these ornaments so I was pleased to discover a serious work by the respected English garden historian Twigs Way, titled Garden Gnomes: a History. 

A Sydney gnome garden

As well as looking at the mythic origins of the gnome the author discusses the different manufacturers in Britain and around the world. One of the leading makers in the UK was Major Garden Ornaments, a firm founded by the parents of former 1980s British Prime Minister John Major, which was in operation from 1930 until 1962. These were the boom years of gnome sales, which reached its peak after the release of the 1937 Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The author of this blog with
 one of his larger garden companions
By the late 1960s the gnome was perceived as vulgar and 'low-rent' and became a symbol of derision. In recent years cement constructed figures have been partially replaced by cheaper plastic constructed versions, and there has been a nostalgic revival of appreciation for these fun, somewhat kitsch, ornaments. Despite this, the Royal Horticultural Society in Britain maintains a long-standing ban on the gnome being exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show.

One of my more refined gnomes
 which dates from the late 19th century

Appropriately for the subject of Twig Way's book this work is diminutively sized. It is also well-illustrated and gives an excellent overview of the history of gnomes from their mythic origins in Germanic folklore through their early high-quality production years up to the time of mass-sales in the twentieth century. This book is a must have for all garden historians and for all those with a true interest in garden ornamentation. 

Garden gnomes:  a history, by Twigs Way, Shire Books, Oxford, 2009, UK, RRP £5.99, ISBN 978-0-7478-0710-0

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Elizabeth Farm

Regarded by many as Australia's oldest surviving house, Elizabeth Farm, near Parramatta, was built by Elizabeth Macarthur in 1793 and is surrounded by a distinctive garden which will appeal to many.

Front of the house

After nearly two centuries of private ownership the property was acquired by the New South Wales State Government in the 1970s and was later put into the care of the Historic Houses Trust (HHT). The HHT restored the house and deliberately decorated it with reproduction period furnishings so visitors could sit on the 'colonial' furniture as well as touch objects, something unheard of in most historic properties

Informal hedge of plumbago on the drive

While the original  estate had originally been 250 acres, when the Government acquired the property it was little more an an acre. Little has survived of the original garden plantings apart from several mature hoop pines, a Chinese elm and an ancient olive (believed to be the oldest surviving specimen in Australia). The HHT expertly restored the garden using evidence from many historical sources, including watercolours, photographs and diaries. All the added plants used in the garden were available in the area in the 19th century. The result today is a largely restored colonial period garden.

The vegetable garden is used as a teaching tool

Like the house, the garden is incorporated into teaching programmes organised by the HHT. During term time school groups learn about Australian history and how people lived in the past. Dressed as servants the children learn, through role-play, about the life of the Macarthurs and the day-to-day  toil of colonial life. For many children the recreated vegetable plot is an incite into where are food comes from.

There are many cacti and succulents in the garden

For many years the garden has been under the care of Ann who in the company of her giant poodle keeps the property in fine fettle. One of my favourite parts of the garden is the cactus garden at the end of the driveway, and here we find a mature collections of Aloes and Opuntia all of which date from the time of restoration.

Elizabeth Farm. 70 Alice Street, Rosehill, Sydney, NSW. Tel (02) 9635 9488
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