Sir Charles Isham was a member of the landed aristocracy who lived a fairly blameless life tending his gardens, other than that he is also credited with introducing the ornamental gnome to the gardens of Britain.
Isham was born in 1819 at the family estate of Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire, the manor house built by his wealthy wool merchant forebear, John Isham, in 1568.
Charles Isham was the second son but inherited Lamport Hall when he was 35 on the death of his elder brother, Justinian.
Isham was obsessed with gardening, much of which he did himself, particularly the rockeries. In 1872 the Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener and Country Gentleman noted:
This rockwork is the great feature of the gardening at Lamport, and is a striking evidence of Sir Charles Isham’s fine taste and wonderful patience. The whole is his own handiwork, and has occupied a period of two and twenty years to bring it to its present high perfection.
But it was Isham’s diminutive decorations that were to secure his place in horticultural history. In 1847 he returned from a trip to Germany bringing back twenty-one terracotta gnomes.
Gnomes had long been part of European folklore as benevolent creatures who rewarded the good behaviour of farmers, merchants, and housewives with assistance in fields, shops, and gardens at night and they were turned into tiny statuary by Phillip Griebel in the middle of the 19th century.
The attraction for Isham was that they would add a little colour to his rockeries and once people saw them in his garden, their spread became unstoppable.
They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, and unfortunately for Isham one of the anti-gnomes was his own daughter who got rid of his original collection. However, one escaped the cull. Known as Lampy, the figure above is now the oldest surviving garden gnome and is on display at Lamport Hall and is valued at £2 million.
Charles Isham died in 1903 and Lamport Hall remained in the hands of the family until the death of Sir Gyles Isham when it was left to a preservation trust. But his gnome legacy has proved to be controversial.
Gnomes were deemed unworthy by the Chelsea Flower Show and the ban on them was only lifted in 2013. The inclusion of Prince William and Kate gnomes at the show probably helped!
And then there is the Garden Gnome Liberation Front set up for ‘the sole purpose of liberating Gnomekind everywhere’.
Charles Isham certainly started something when he brought those gnomes from Germany and as a footnote to the whole saga, the Griebel family have continued gnome manufacture through all the political and wartime upheavals of the 20th century and their factory in Gräfenroda now houses a gnome museum.
But I’ll leave the last word to Ikea and their rather spooky Time For Change ad earlier this year which upset so many people.