Lamport Hall is one of Northamptonshire’s finest mansions. Remodeled in the 1650s by Inigo Jones’ sidekick John Webb and again by the Smiths of Warwick a hundred years later, it stands serene and resplendent in rolling grounds, the epitome of the English country house .
But the fame of Lamport is not based on its architecture, as beautiful as it is. Lamport Hall is world famous simply because in 1874 its owner, a garden baronet named Sir Charles Isham, decided to decorate his new rock garden with 150 small grotesque figurines he had acquired in Nuremberg. And from that little seed was born a great British gardening tradition: the garden gnome, ancestor of a million ornamental aberrations frolicking, frolicking, lunating.
“Every gardener should be an artist,” said Vita Sackville-West, who knew more about the subject than anyone. “It’s the only possible way to create a garden.” And every great garden in England, from Stourhead to Stowe, is a form of self-expression, an attempt to realize a dream, like any other work of art. But uncontrolled self-expression can easily lead down the garden path, so to speak, until the bucolic dream turns into a gnome-filled nightmare.
If you need proof, look no further than Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s new book, English Garden Eccentrics, where extravagant topiaries and equally extravagant topiaries jostle for position with gothic follies, flamboyant fountains and entire menageries of exotic parrots, kangaroos and wolves, sometimes caged, sometimes chained to picturesque rockeries and sometimes stuffed. There is a deep strain of eccentricity that runs through the Gardens of England: so deep, in fact, that populating a Victorian rockery with an army of miniature Bavarian goblins pales in comparison to the antics of the rest of the Longstaffe-Gowan eccentrics. .
In Enstone, Oxfordshire, in the 1630s, for example, royalist vegetarian Thomas Bushell transformed a curious rock formation into a cave (it helped that he was a mining engineer) and installed a formidable array of toys powered by water: “artificial thunder and lightning … drums beat, organs play, birds sing, the dead rise”. There were a few Egyptian mummies (including a gift from Queen Henrietta Maria, no less) that certainly didn’t rise, but were damp and moldy; and an old hermit who didn’t seem to mind the humidity since he was still prowling in his hermit cave when a visitor was surprised to come across him in 1663, “a 105-year-old old man”.