by Robert Ingpen
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Australian author Robert Ingpen decided to look at the strange fauna of his native land in the 1979 art book Australian Gnomes. Creating copious paintings of gnomes in a variety of Australian settings and with various Australian animals, Ingpen also provided the text to explain the history of culture of the gnomes who live in Australia and how they interact, or avoid contact, with the Humans who live there.
Ingpen has created a book which purports to be an examination of the various cultures of the gnomes who live in Australia. He is clear that the gnomes all immigrated to Australia with no indigenous gnome population, perhaps an erasure of Australia’s own Aboriginal culture. Instead, the gnomes hail from Ireland, the northern Mediterranean, northern Europe, Mongolia, and Argentina. Each of these gnomes has brought elements of their own culture which mirrors the human cultures from which they came, although only the Irish gnomes, the Leprignomes, have maintained their cultural ties to the extent that they are a separate group and shunned by the others.
In addition to giving a history of the gnomes in Australia, and noting that while most humans are not aware of them, a few select people, like himself, are allowed by the gnomes to interact with them, Ingpen looks at their current culture, which is based on Australian culture with a whimsical and utopian overlay. They live in harmony, not only with each other, but with the humans who are unaware of their existence, and the land on which they live. His pictures show their technology and the way they have domesticated seemingly wild animals, as well as their reinterpreted use of the detritus of human society.
The gnomes of Australia also have an annual calendar filled with folk holidays that Ingpen both describes and depicts. These are folksy in nature , adding to the whimsy of his creations, however most festivals would be improved by a “special sausage cooker” like the gnomes use at their feasts and penguin dusting would also add to most holidays.
While gnomes try to stay hidden, Ingpen, also provides instructions for people who want to find these small folks. Not only does he offer ways to improve your chances of seeing them in the wild, but he discusses “leptography,” which allows invisible gnomes to be seen in existing photos, a section illustrated by versions of the pictures that are shown both with and without gnomes.
Australian Gnomes falls into a long-standing category of works that posit mythical creatures living amongst us, from the Cottingley Fairy photos that fooled Arthur Conan Doyle and tohers in the late 1910s to Brian Froud’s Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book in 1994. Ingpen’s description of his gnomes is amusing and is balanced quite well by his paintings of gnomes in their natural habitats going about their daily tasks. While there are parts of the book that don’t stand up well to modern sensibilities, on the whole, the book is a delightful look at a fictional world.
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