Gnomearium, created by Michael Lehany, 2009

Oil drums, gnomes from a private collection in Orange

Gnomearium, n. (Australian vernacular). Dignified housing for garden gnomes in niches reminiscent of those protecting the sculptures of saints and notable people on gothic cathedrals. Gnomariums are particularly suited to higher elevations like Orange, where temperature extremes imperil the delicate paintwork on concrete gnomes, resulting in cracking, peeling and fading. As a species of garden wildlife, gnomes are social animals and gnomariums are designed to house extended gnome families in separate but together accommodation, where each gnome can pursue its specialised occupation, whether fishing, smoking, resting or gardening.

The precise origins of the gnomearium are lost in sands of time but may be linked to the nymphaeum and grottoes of grand European gardens.

Nymps were often associated with the ground or garden level of large estates, villas and palaces. They were housed in underground or transition spaces often known as grottoes.

In Australia, grottoes were relatively rare in private gardens but are found in a number of Roman Catholic institutions. This association highlights the ancient links between Roman Catholicism and pre-Christian Roman burial culture. (There are no known Presbyterian grottoes in Australia).

Many grottoes were crudely constructed and improvised. Australia has lost most of its institutional grottoes due to the death of custodian nuns and brothers, changes in institutional culture, changes in fashion and safety preoccupations.

So here we have the nymphean transposed to the antipodes (like most of us) and housing the little people of Australian gardens. The nymphs of the 'lawn', 'fishing', 'smoking' reading or sitting in attendance are housed in 4 gallon drums, similar to those that our dads used to keep kero or fuel for the lawn mower in the shed.

In keeping with modern cultural requirements, the design is infinitely flexible. The precise relationship between garden gnomes and nymphs is not yet fully understood but no doubt would prove a worthwhile thesis or doctoral study at for example the University of Western Sydney.

The oil drums serve a practical purpose. If gnomes are left exposed to the elements in the Orange climate the cement painted gnomes soon lose their charming original paint, the drums partially protect their precious contents from further decay and the drum handles on the lid allow for easy transportation for sitting elsewhere in the garden, or for taking gnomes on the now infamous gnome holiday. Each drum and gnome fits into the standard vertical format.