Topiary is enjoying a resurgence in the UK with more and more people choosing to turn their hedges and bushes into something a little more interesting. But the practice of carving bushes into interesting shapes is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around for thousands of years.
The first evidence of topiary comes from Ancient Rome, but it’s likely that the practice was learned by the Romans through their associations with Asiatic and Mediterranean cultures, so topiary could be even older. When the Romans decided to take over the world they brought many of their ‘civilising practices’ with them and topiary found its way to the UK.
During the Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, all signs of ‘civilisation’ seemed to disappear and life became about survival. However, the art of ornamental gardening was kept alive in the walled gardens of monasteries and topiarised hedges were often depicted in illustrated manuscripts.
As the world became a more stable place and wealth was accrued, the art of ornamental gardening really took root. Classical times inspired the era and topiary was no exception. One architect working in 1459 listed his desire for topiary ‘popes and cardinals, witches, philosophers, donkey’s, oxen, après, urns, vases, giants and warriors’ to adorn the grounds of the villa he was designing.
The Topiary Diaspora
After the 1300s the art of topiary spread across the world and became hugely popular in Europe. In France, box hedges became the order of the day which can be seen in the 17th century gardens at Versailles which feature the famous ‘parterres’ as they came to be known.
In the UK labyrinths and mazes were the order of the day along with ornamental topiary which certainly reflects the English eccentricity. One 17thC poet described his favourite garden in a letter, which featured centaurs, satyrs and a life sized whale, all carved from rosemary bushes.
In the Netherlands, the newly moneyed Dutch merchant class found many elaborate ways to show off their wealth, including stuffing their modest gardens with an incredible array of topiary that ranged from traditional spheres and box hedges, to entire families recreated in hedge form in the front garden!
The Golden Age of Topiary
William of Orange who took the British throne in 1688, loved topiary just as much as he enjoyed torturing peasants! It was around this time that the legendary gardens of Levens were created which featured a host of French style topiary. Meanwhile, the Dutch merchants introduced their style to the British Isles, these merged with the already thriving British tradition and the golden age of topiary was born.
Topiary today is more popular than ever and a wonderful way to add interest to a garden. It’s possible to purchase plants that have already been shaped or even have a go yourself. Topiary can be a really fun hobby and whilst the art has tended to lean towards more conservative designs there are some incredible examples of this stunning skill in action in grand gardens around the country. So why not pay a visit and find inspiration for your own topiary masterpiece?