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A short history of topiary and the 5 best places to see it

Posted:
5 December 2016
Posted By:
English Heritage
Categories:
History Uncovered, Things To Do
Topiary in the gardens at Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire

The art of shaping shrubs and sculpting hedges into ornamental figures is known as topiary. The visual impact of topiary adds a dramatic touch to gardens, especially in the winter. We asked Landscape Architect Deborah Evans to explain the history of topiary, and pick the best place to see inspiring examples at our sites.

History of the Art of Topiary

The art of topiary and of the topiarist dates back to classical antiquity. Using knives and shears box, yew and holly are trained through confident pruning and gentle snipping into fantastical shapes and architectural forms. Pliny the Younger, for example, described the ornate forms of animal figures and shrubs cut into different shapes in his gardens at Laurentum.

The form was revived in mainland Europe by the Italian Renaissance. Centaurs, ships and sirens tumbled through the bosquets or guarded the strictly symmetrical parterres of the famous Medici family.

Topiary travelled west to France and north to the Low Countries, but not as far as the gardens of Tudor England – yet.

The Great Garden at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire was created in the late 17th century by Sir Christopher Hatton. It included an elaborate grass parterre in grass, gravel and topiary. The garden was recreated from archaeological evidence and contemporary examples in 1997.

The Great Garden at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire was created in the late 17th century by Sir Christopher Hatton. It included an elaborate grass parterre in grass, gravel and topiary. The garden was recreated from archaeological evidence and contemporary examples in 1997.

The style became popular in England in seventeenth century, when Holland topiary (and formal gardens) became high art. Lollipop trees and crenulated hedges were the height of fashion across the grand gardens of Europe – which are beautifully documented in the engravings of artists such as Kip and Knyff.

To fulfil demand for topiary in aristocratic English gardens, the bourgeoning nursery businesses around Chelsea and Fulham in London and up and down the east coast did roaring trade in ‘ready-made’ topiary pieces.

Topiary did not, however, appeal to Capability Brown and the architects of the English Landscape Movement in the late eighteenth century. They preferred their gardens to look ‘natural’, and the art of topiary was relegated to the cottage garden.

Fat doves and elongated peacocks returned to fashionable manor house gardens in the late nineteenth century. Topiary became a garden design essential to the Aesthetic and Arts & Crafts movements. It even found its way into many of the new urban parks as a centre piece to a bold display of carpet bedding.

Topiary demands attention and the reduction in the scale and staff of many gardens since 1900 has resulted in high losses. However, there are also some outstanding survivors. and these veteran trees have witnessed incredible changes in horticultural and social history. Here are some places you can visit to see examples of this ancient art-form for yourself.

5 places to see topiary at English Heritage sites

1. Brodsworth Hall (Yorkshire)

The mass shaping of evergreens at Brodsworth Hall including cones, spirals and pyramids.

Brodsworth Hall’s Enchanted Christmas Garden event takes place  Fri 16 – Fri 23 Dec 2016 between 4.30pm – 8.30pm. There’s an illuminated trail through the gardens and delicious seasonal treats available. You can book tickets online in advance and get 10% off the entrance price. Find out more here.

Topiary in the gardens of Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire

Topiary in the gardens of Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire

 2. Wenlock Priory

The cloister garden Wenlock Priory is filled with topiary animals – and an unusual octagonal lavabo – used by the monks for washing their hands.

Plan a visit to Wenlock Priory

A topiary squirrel at Wenlock Priory. In the 19th century the ruins of Wenlock Priory became part of a garden and it is from this period that the use of topiary is first recorded

A topiary squirrel at Wenlock Priory. In the 19th century the ruins of Wenlock Priory became part of a garden and it is from this period that the use of topiary is first recorded

3. Walmer Castle

The ‘Cloud Hedge’ at Walmer Castle is the result of a happy accident. The hedge was neglected during the Second World War, but the heavy weight of snow brought by the hard winter of 1947 made it even more misshapen. It provides the backdrop to the newly restored Broadwalk Garden. There’s also the Kitchen Garden and the Queen Mother’s Garden to explore.

Plan a visit to Walmer Castle

In the Broadwalk at Walmer Castle the formal nineteenth century hedge has evolved into an organic, undulating 'cloud' hedge, a result of a happy accident. The hedge was neglected during the Second World War, but the heavy weight of snow brought by the hard winter of 1947 made it even more misshapen.

In the Broadwalk at Walmer Castle the formal nineteenth century hedge has evolved into an organic, undulating ‘cloud’ hedge, a result of a happy accident.

4. Kenilworth Castle

The clipped shapes in the Elizabethan garden were restored recently and provide a haven of peace and tranquillity.

Plan a visit to Kenilworth Castle

The Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth Castle ©English Heritage. Credit: Jason Ingram

The Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth Castle. ©English Heritage / Jason Ingram

5. Wrest Park

Wrest Park is perfect place to explore the evolution of the English garden. You’ll find fine examples of clipped parterres and shaped laurels in pots.

Plan a visit to Wrest Park

The intricate parterre at Wrest Park

The intricate parterre at Wrest Park

Deborah Evans is a Landscape Architect, landscape historian and gardener who has worked the soil and tapped the keyboard. She runs her own specialist practice, DE Landscape & Heritage Ltd. working with clients in the public and private sectors.

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  • About the Author

    English Heritage
    English Heritage cares for over 400 historic sites around England.

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