The History of Topiary
According to A.M. Clevely in his excellent book "Topiary:
The Art of Clipping Trees and Ornamental Hedges" (Collins) published
in 1988 "the definitive history of topiary has yet to be written."
This is in book form let alone on the Internet but
I'll try to give you a quick run through here.
Although the Seventeenth Century is seen as the Golden
Age of topiary clipped trees and bushes can be traced back to the Egyptians
and the Ancient Romans. See the section on the Roman Consul Pliny the
Elder on the Home Page. Although gardening was popular amongst the upper
classes the actual physical work was done by the slaves in many cases.
The one who looked after the ornamental garden (the Topia) was thus
known as the Topiarus. Many writers think that Egyptian, Syrian Greek
or Jewish slaves were the first people to introduce the art to the Romans.
The Persian Empire was also known to have splendid
hedges with clipped Myrtle and the ancient Egyptian garden often showed
a formal symmetry as can be seen from the many surviving paintings.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in Italy the monks
kept the art of topiary alive in the cloisters of their monasteries.
In the Renaissance the wealthy families who were often as devout as
they were ruthless paid to have elaborate gardens in their villas based
on the learning of these monks who took their inspiration from the writings
of the Ancients. The poet Petrarch, amongst others, emulated Virgil
in writing about formal landscapes for instance.
In 1467 a monk called Francesco Colonna published
a book called "Hypnerotomachia" which was an allegorical work
set in visionary gardens and this had a profound influence on subsequent
Italian aristocracy and their gardens.
By 1520 Renaissance ideas had spread to France who
were particularly taken by the use of hedges to give formal structure.
This culminated in the Work of Andre le Notre with his massive designs
for formal hedging for King Louis the Fourteenth at the Palace of Versailles
just outside Paris. The Versailles style spread across Europe to great
gardens in Denmark, Germany, Russia and Sweden. The Dutch however were
to emphasise the figurative aspects of the Versailles style and this
was one which Britain, with its links to that part of the world took
on enthusiastically. The use of individual specimens in the Dutch manner
can be particularly seen at Levens Hall in Cumbria.
Levens Hall, Cumbria
Mazes and labyrinths were popular in Britain from
after the Norman Conquest but it was in the Seventeenth Century that
topiary became part of the formal landscape. As with all fashions, however,
this was to be fairly short-lived as the mania for the Landscape style,
made popular by such exponents as Lancelot "Capability" Brown
meant that many formal topiary gardens were ripped up in the pursuit
of open parkland. Fortunately it never entirely died and small cottage
gardens continued the art as the British are especially noted for their
Another revival came in the 1830's when such gardens
as "Mon Plaisir" in the grounds of Elvaston Caste in Derbyshire
were laid out as by now many people had begun to tire of landscape expanses.
The Victorians developed topiary, as they did all other aspects of garden
design and machinery and of course it continued to thrive in the Twentieth
Century with the efforts of Major Lawrence Johnston at Hidcote Manor
in Gloucestershire, Vita Sackville West at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent
and many others.
Today topiary is thriving, in some small part due
to the "Topiary in the United Kingdom" website and the nurseries
you can find on our Where to Buy page
...and long may it remain.
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