Topiary: The ancient art of transforming nature into cubes, pyramids and peacocks

Christopher Stocks traces the story of topiary, from its ancient origins to the modern day.

We don’t know who first looked at a bush and thought: ‘That would make a good rabbit.’ But we do know it was a long, long time ago. The Romans certainly indulged in topiarisation, which they seem to have picked up from the Greeks, and it seems likely that the Ancient Egyptians were snipping away even before then. As the garden designer Isabel Bannerman says in her latest book, Husbandry (Pimpernel Press, £14.99), topiary is both timeless and contemporary. ‘It somehow “peoples” the place and commands a garden from it.’

Over the centuries, a love of topiary has come and gone, occasionally rising to excesses of enthusiasm before a reaction set in. In about AD100, Pliny the Younger described the garden of his country villa near Ostia in Italy as having, ‘a slope adorned with the figures of animals in box’ and a lawn ‘enclosed with evergreens, shaped into a variety of forms’. There is evidence of topiary at several Roman sites in Britain (most famously at Fishbourne Palace near Chichester in West Sussex), but, when the conquerors left in the fifth century, they took their shears with them and British bushes must have been very shaggy for the next few centuries.

‘Fighting Cocks’ topiary at Great Dixter, Northiam, East Sussex, in 1927. Owner Nathaniel Lloyd had a great interest in topiary and wrote a book on the subject. He commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to lay out the gardens as well as to work on the house in 1910-12. Christopher Lloyd, the former Country Life gardening writer and son of Nathaniel, went on to live at Great Dixter. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The Anglo Saxons and Vikings were, perhaps, better known for rape and pillage than an interest in horticulture, but things began to look up again after 1066. Norman nobles seem to have reintroduced some simple topiary, perhaps inspired by the Islamic gardens they had encountered in Sicily. The small, enclosed plots that developed within the safety of castle courtyards and monastery cloisters — the so-called hortus conclusus — often featured clipped hedging, sometimes accompanied by ball-topped standards.

An added touch of sophistication appeared in the late 1300s, which saw the rise of a new form of topiary known as the estrade. Shrubs such as rosemary were trained into standard shapes, supported by an iron armature surmounted by two or three horizontal hoops of decreasing size, like a botanical wedding cake, around which the branches of the plant were twined.

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A topiary and real peacock side by side by the conservatory in the gardens at Warwick Castle.

The estrade is surely ripe for revival, but today’s topiary really descends from two great traditions, neither of them (sadly) British. The first began in the 1400s with the Italian Renaissance, as Caroline Foley explains in her wide-ranging survey, Topiary, Knots and Parterres (also from Pimpernel Press, £50). The immense wealth of the Medicis and their ilk was lavished on competitive display and, although the main beneficiaries were art and architecture, horticulture had an important role to play.

The gardens of the Villa Quaracchi outside Florence, completed in about 1460 and attributed to a design by the pioneering architect Leon Battista Alberti, gloried in a riot of topiarised box, including spheres, porticos, temples, vases, urns, apes, donkeys, oxen, a bear, giants, men, women, warriors, a harpy, philosophers, popes and cardinals. Once Italian gardeners had sharpened their shears, there was no stopping them and, before long, their repertory expanded to complex geometric parterres and carefully clipped avenues of tree-high hedges or palissades, often trained over arches and topped with topiary pompoms.

Michael Hill has grown yews from tiny saplings and over 35 years has created over 100 of the most beautiful topiary shapes at Cressy Hall. ©Andrew Sydenham/Country Life

Topiary’s second great flowering was in France, the kings of which invaded Italy several times in the late 15th century and liked what they saw. They began importing Italian styles, not to mention Italian gardeners, but, gradually, a native French style developed that featured high clipped hedges, ever-more florid parterres and increasingly rigid, symmetrical plans. The French tradition reached its apotheosis under Louis XIV in the vast 4,000-acre gardens of the Palace of Versailles, which contained thousands of precisely cut topiary standards in a seemingly endless variety of abstract shapes. The 20th-century landscape architect Sylvia Crowe singled out the French approach for its ‘ruthless mastery’ and there is, indeed, something militaristic about its repetitious rigour, which stands in marked contrast to Italy’s lighter, more humorous style.

In Britain, a much smaller, poorer country, there were fewer opportunities to create formal gardens on a truly grand scale, but the Tudors did embrace topiary, albeit in the kitsch figurative mode that still haunts cottage gardens today. Henry VIII engaged Italian gardeners to transform the grounds of Hampton Court and, when the German writer Thomas Platter visited during the reign of Elizabeth I, he observed ‘all manner of shapes, men and women, half men and half horse, sirens, serving-maids with baskets, French lilies and delicate crenellations… all true to the life, and so cleverly and amusingly interwoven, mingled and grown together, trimmed and arranged picture-wise that their equal would be difficult to find’.

Topiary only got knobblier as the years went on. William III introduced the intricate Dutch style, and commissioned Hampton Court’s famous maze in about 1700. His courtiers, such as William Blathwayt and James Grahme, planted extensive topiary at their country seats, Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire, and Levens Hall, Cumbria, and, although Blathwayt’s gardens have long since gone, the topiary at Levens has survived in all its lumpy, spiralling glory, making it the oldest surviving example in the country.

Warnell Hall

Lyn Brunetti, who has much expertise in topiary, prunes yew on the front lawn at Warnell Hall using a bamboo framework as a guide. ©Val Corbett/Country Life Picture Library

Yet this golden age couldn’t last and the tide turned against topiary in the early 18th century, when Joseph Addison launched a scathing attack in his new magazine, The Spectator. ‘Our British gardeners,’ he wrote in 1712, ‘instead of honouring Nature, love to deviate from it as much as possible. Our trees rise in Cones, Globes and Pyramids. We see the Marks of the Scissors upon every Plant and Bush. For my own part, I would rather look upon a Tree in all its Luxuriancy and Diffusion of Boughs and Branches, than when it is thus cut and Trimmed into a Mathematical Figure.’ The age of Capability Brown and landscape gardening had dawned.

Since Addison’s broadside, the pendulum of fashion has swung away from topiary and back again, mainly dictated by the availability of cash — for massed topiary is labour intensive and expensive to maintain. Tellingly, the first major revival, in the late 19th century, was led by plutocrats such as the Rothschilds on their Ascott estate in Buckinghamshire, followed by a glorious Edwardian sunset, when labour was plentiful and cheap, before being snuffed out by the First World War. It wasn’t until the boom years of the 1990s that topiary really came back into its own, although, these days, not even the wealthiest owners can afford the hundreds of gardeners who tended to big Edwardian gardens.

Chelsea Flower Show pictures

If you went down to the show today, you’re sure of a big surprise…  These topiary bears were at The Chelsea Flower Show 2017. Picture: Country Life / Charlie Hopkinson

Much contemporary topiary harks back to the conservative French tradition of obelisks and box balls, but there have been some genuine innovations. Perhaps the most striking is cloud pruning, the Far Eastern technique of clipping trees in a gently naturalistic way. This wended its way to this country via America (Walt Disney was a fan) and, more recently, Belgium, in the refined, understated work of the garden designer Jacques Wirtz.

All the same, surely Pliny would be happy to discover that peacocks and rabbits, spirals and pom-poms continue to thrive, thanks to enthusiastic amateurs such as Charlotte Molesworth in Kent and Michael Hill at Cressy Hall. Timeless topiary, indeed.

What English country house garden would be complete without at least a little topiary?