On Gnomes and Gnomons


ImageThis little sundial, rather dwarfed by the pot of agapanthus, has travelled with me from the very first garden I had and must, for the plate is dated 1637, have been in dozens of other gardens before that, and I hope will be in many gardens to come.  Still, who needs a sundial?  After all, there is that (to me), the very unfunny doggerel that runs :

I am a sundial and I make a botch

Of what’s done far better by a watch.

I don’t really care: sundials are potent symbols of dark things, and actually more fun than bird-baths (filled, as those usually are, with water rank with sparrows’ armpits – ok, wingpits), or pools (unless you actually eat your goldfish).

The oddest sundial I’ve ever owned is the tilted column already illustrated elsewhere in this blog.  It’s presumably late 18th century like the house, but up here in Scotland, sundials first appeared in the late 16th century. Frightfully grand gardens seem to have had whole columns of dials, piled one on another to make odd totems to time. With as many as forty or fifty separate ‘dials’, they told the times in various elaborate ways, but told times in other places too (Prague, Paris, even Polmont – rather like those vulgar stockbroker watches that tell their owners when New York closes and Tokyo opens).

Weirder looking are the so-called ‘lectern’ sundials (the sort that, secretly, I most want). Elaborate pieces of stonework, scalloped, horned and spined, they seem to have been used for astronomical observations (and were of use to astrologers too). They were valuable enough for their owners to take them from garden to garden if their fates or fortunes so dictated. Some are even signed. Ones in this part of Scotland are sometimes made by Archibald Handasyde. Perhaps he ran a 17th century garden centre in Musselburgh (with grandees wincing at his taste in auriculas). It was probably his descendants who ran the local nursery of that name, responsible for many plant introductions – notably verbenas and calceolarias – to Victorian Britain.

Few of these ‘scientific’ sundials made any reference to the mortality of their owners.  I think such reminders are good.  The one next to the agapanthus pot proclaims dismally that:

‘Amidst ye floures, I tell ye hours.

Tyme wanes away as flowers decay’…

and more in the same vein, with a touch of redemption at the end just in case you slit your wrists with the gnomon then and there.

Another I once owned, but didn’t bring here, vast, we found in the old walled kitchen garden, buried amongst brambles and nettles that choked the apple walk to the ruinous conservatory. Of, I should think, 1840, it’s much less long-winded, though just as apt: ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’.  Ozymandias would have understood.

Others have mottoes even more imporovingly gloomy: things like ‘As the sune runes so death comes’, the classier but just as chilling ‘Ut Umbra Sic Fugit Vita’, or the short and devastating ‘We must…’ – all are wonderfully calculated to remind you that you’ve left the kettle boiling in the kitchen.  And I once came across a very grand one, with four gloomy lions feeding four pools which said:

‘Today is thine…

Tomorrow perchance cometh not…

Yesterday returneth not…

Misuse it not…

Blimey! 

But I’m so sundial-crazy that I love them even in winter when they are most useless and unreadable.  I remember, on a winter’s night, when we had a garden with an enchanting two-storey summerhouse, looking out of one window over the frozen parterre surrounded by leafless trees and, beyond them, at the moonlight washing the pale sea and the immense snow-covered hills. From another, I could just see, through the apple branches, the old plate-less sundial that we should have left in its proper home, but didn’t.  It stood, a blind sentinel, beneath the vast starry dark.  It made me shiver.

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About david stuart

garden writer and journalist, and occasionally a designer, with a garden in the Scottish borders, and his pal's gardens in Edinburgh, London, and Lincolnshire. They keep both of us very, very busy. Books I've written listed on my website, and dozens of articles and garden and plant pictures. Currently working on several new projects. One of these was to return to painting - see the blog - and which is proving exciting! www.david-stuart.co.uk
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