Friday, 20 May 2022

Topiarist elves (and a bit of garden history) by Carolyn Hughes

I was prompted to write this post by a moth. A box moth, to be precise, like this…

Photo © David Hughes 2016

If you have box hedges and you live in a place where they have become invasive, you will probably know about the box moth. And, pretty as it is, it will definitely not be a welcome visitor to your garden. The adult moth was first reported in the UK in 2008, and the caterpillar was found in gardens in 2011. Since then, it has become widespread, and last year it arrived in our garden.

The moth is difficult to control, and it can ruin your lovingly clipped hedges, so, at the weekend, we made the decision to remove most of ours. I was sad but resigned and, as I watched them go, I was reminded both of other box hedges we have known, and of what I knew about the history of topiary.

You might not much care for topiary – clipped box, but also yew and suchlike – but I really rather like it. We have maintained a few little box hedges and balls in our garden for many years. But, in the Vercors mountains, in south eastern France, an area where we have been going for our summer holidays for nearly thirty years (and where, in a few weeks, we are going again for the first time in over two years), there are certain remote mountain roads where you will find hundreds of clipped box hedges and sculptures. There are hedges, with straight sides and flat tops, and balls and pyramids and, most astonishing of all, funny faces, and all of them are on genuinely isolated mountain roads.

It seems almost magical, as if – as we used to say to the children – the elves had done it!

The first time we saw them, very many years ago, we thought it hilarious that someone was apparently travelling these mountain roads with a pair of topiary shears. Because, honestly, there are miles and miles of bushes, painstakingly and (it would seem) lovingly clipped to crisp or curved perfection. We still think it’s delightful that someone – who I wonder? – takes the trouble to do all this. Is he/she alone or is there a gang of them? And does someone pay for it to be done? And why?

We have never seen the topiarist(s), even though some of the clippings had clearly been quite recent. We live in hope that, maybe, one day… Unless, of course, it is the elves.

Photo © Author 2016

Photo © Author 2016

Photo © Author 2016

Anyway, seeing those mountain sculptures set me wondering about how long topiary had been an art, and, specifically, whether they had topiary in mediaeval gardens, given my particular interest in mediaeval times.

In Europe, apparently, the Romans did practise the art of topiary. Both Pliny and Martial mentioned it, and Roman shrub sculpture included animals and obelisks, as well as more straightforward clipped hedges and cones.

It seems that topiary might then have died out, in Europe anyway, for several centuries. Disappointingly, I think it is probably true that there was no topiary in mediaeval gardens, or at least not in gardens of the fourteenth century, for I have not so far tracked down any helpful images from before 1400. (Although if anyone does know of some, I would love to see them.) However, illustrations certainly do exist of clipped shrubs, in tubs and in garden beds, from later in the fifteenth century, although the topiary does generally seem to be quite simple, mostly clipped balls or pyramids and a characteristically mediaeval form called “estrade”, which was a sort of “layered cake” design – something like this…

Illustration taken from The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg. Source unspecified

A much later picture, of the eighteenth-century gardens of Powis Castle in Wales, shows similar “layered” clipped trees planted in the ground.

A view of Powis Castle with formal gardens, c.1780. Image in the public domain

In the sixteenth century, though, topiary was revived with much greater enthusiasm and expression, on a grand scale in the gardens of wealthy Europeans, but also in the more domestic setting of cottage gardens. Yet, despite the grand scale of their settings, some parterres in the gardens of castles and great houses were often again quite simple in their overall design, with low clipped hedges punctuated by the occasional pyramid, and trees in tubs, clipped generally into balls.

The glorious gardens at Château de Villandry in France illustrate how this relatively simple style might have looked, though of course on an astonishing scale.

Photo © David Hughes

The fashion for more complicated “shrub sculpture” came from Holland, and spread to England in the late seventeenth century. However, it apparently fell out of fashion in the following century, amongst the gentry at least, when, as I understand it, some landscape gardeners must have gone a bit over the top with the complexity or, perhaps, sheer silliness of their designs and drew howls of ridicule.

But, in the nineteenth century, the art underwent yet another revival with, first, architectural topiary – essentially garden “rooms” enclosed by trimmed hedges – becoming popular, and, eventually, the more sculptural clipping returned as well.

Nowadays, it seems that topiary is more popular than ever, with wonderful examples of “grand designs”, such as those at Château de Villandry, and many other astonishing great gardens around the world, and a myriad different and sometimes extremely quirky designs of all shapes and sizes.

Beckley Park, Oxfordshire. Photograph by Vivian Garrido, via Wikimedia Commons

Rufford Old Hall, Lancashire (National Trust). Photograph by Mike Peel (

The extraordinary yew hedge, trimmed into abstract, cloud-like forms,
planted at Powis Castle, Wales (National Trust) in the 18th century or earlier.
Photograph by Sjwells53, via Wikimedia Commons

I was amused, years ago, to see this example of shrub sculpture at the National Trust house Kingston Lacy, in Dorset, though I did not take a photo of it myself.

Photograph © Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

And it so reminded me of one of those photographs I had taken on my holiday in France that I wondered if perhaps the Vercors elves had taken a trip to Dorset for inspiration before they set to with their shears along the mountain roads…

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