With a Little Help From My Gnomes

A significant collection of gnomes to be displayed in an English garden was created in 1896, when Sir Frank Crisp, a rich London lawyer, built the 120-room Friar Park at Henley-On-Thames. The park was built in a mixture of French Renaissance and Gothic architectural styles, with an extensive garden featuring lakes. The garden was divided into a number of different areas, including and Elizabethan style garden and an enormous rock garden. Within the rock garden he erected a 9m model of the Matterhorn, built from 7,000 tonnes of Yorkshire stone and topped with a piece of rock allegedly from the summit of the actual mountain. He completed it with a herd of cast-iron chamois goats.

The iconic album cover photograph for 'All Things Must Pass'

Album Cover Photograph. The iconic album cover photograph for “All Things Must Pass” was taken by Barry Feinstein and featured the recently recovered Friar Park gnomes.

There were underground caves connected by a river and the caves were adorned with items such as skeletons and mirrors. In the caves and grounds of the house he also placed , what must have been by any measure, the consummate collection of about 100 large, German terracotta gnomes, which are thought to have been supplied by Wahliss Galleries in London.

The house was later used as a convent and a school for many years and then in 1970, Friar Park became the home of George Harrison of The Beatles. He recorded his album All things Must Pass that year and it includes the Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll), a song in homage to the creator of the house.

The album was very successful, outselling some of The Beatles albums and reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic. The cover for that album is now regarded as an iconic image of George Harrison and gnomes were a large part of it.

Photographer Barry Feinstein remembers the session at Friar Park to shoot the pictures for that album cover. The gardens were being renovated and “We photographed for days,” Barry says of the session, “Then someone called George and told him that the gnomes that were stolen from Friar Park could be bought back. They asked him if he wanted to buy them back. He said “Sure”. They brought them back and they were laid out on the lawn. We went out and looked at them and I said, “There’s the cover.” We didn’t have to move a thing. In about two minutes, we had the cover. It was spontaneous.”

Barry Feinstein’s famous photograph shows four gnomes of an unusually large size, lying as a group around George. These large figures are about three feet long and such gnomes are known to have been made by only a few manufacturers. Some of the gnomes in the photograph can in fact be identified from late 19th century catalogues as the work of Ferdinand Maresch in Usti nad Labem, Czechoslovakia.

Another of George Harrison’s albums,“Thirty three and a 1/3rd”, was released in 1976, and again in 2004 in a remastered format. The CD case booklet contains a photograph of George and his father Harry at Friar Park surrounded by nine large, standing and reposing gnomes. Again, some of the gnomes are clearly from the Maresch factory.

A Portier Gnome

A Portier Gnome identical to the one photographed with George Harrison at Friar Park.

Griebel, Heissner and Maresch catalogues from around 1900, show that some of these large gnomes were made not just as garden ornaments but were also meant to stand as gate or door guardians, with a “Portier” badge on their hat. In 2007, an antique dealer in Cowbridge, South Wales took in a fine “Portier” gnome which had been acquired in Builth Wells, Mid Wales in 2006. It is very similar to one of the gnomes on George Harrison’s right in the “Thirty three and 1/3rd” photograph and is from the same factory. Some damage can be seen on the Friar Park gnome which also does not have a staff and there seem to be some colour differences with the Welsh gnome. Have these two friends been missing each other all this time? It would not have been unusual to see a pair of such gnomes standing on either side of a door or gate into a large house. Not many of these gnomes would have been made and they would have been expensive – in fact a 19th century German advertisement priced them at 90 Marks at a time when a farm labourer’s wages for a whole year would have been about 50 Marks.

So it seems that the gnomes of Friar Park provided George with a little inspiration on more than on occasion. Now, that’s quite a claim to fame.

This is an extract from our book entitled “gnomeland and introduction to the little people” which is available from our shop here.

What's left of the Modbury Gnome