Friday, February 1, 2013

Topiary from England to Early America

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Much Wenlock Priory, Shropshire, England

Sunshine, ruins, topiary...who could ask for more.

18th Century depiction of a gardener clipping

We live near the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland. They were built on a 250 acre estate by Harvey S. Ladew (1887-1976) after 1920. Ladew, who loved to "ride to the hounds," designed topiaries depicting a fox hunt with horses; riders, dogs, & fox clearing a hedge; elegant swans; an exotic giraffe; & even a landlocked Chinese junk with sails.

Ladew Topiary Gardens

A short ride north is a more traditional topiary garden at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. In 1700, a Quaker farm family purchased the property from William Penn. Joshua & Samuel Peirce began planting an arboretum on the farm in 1798. By 1850, the site contained one of the finest collections of trees in the nation & one of the first public parks. The farm was purchased in 1906 by Pierre du Pont, so he could preserve the trees; and from 1907 until the 1930s, du Pont created today's gardens, where beauty is as important as scientific botany.

Longwood Gardens

Traveling a few hours further up the Atlantic coast reveals the 100 year old Wellesley, Massachusetts, Hunnewell Arboretum topiary of native American white pine & arborvite.

Green Animals Topiary Gardens

Nearby is the 19th century Green Animals Topiary Gardens in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

Columbus, Ohio

For years we drove on Interstate 70 from Maryland to Indiana & back again almost monthly. About midway between, an ambitious 1990s topiary garden at Old Deaf School Park right in downtown Columbus, Ohio, replicates Georges Seurat's painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, consisting of 54 topiary people, 8 boats, 3 dogs, a monkey, a cat, & a pond.


Even a visit to Epcot in Florida with the grandchildren yeilds a topiary dinasour created, one might imagine, by Edward Scissorhands.

Levens Hall in 1833, Cumbria, England

My favoite topiary garden is Levens Hall (see above 1833, see below recent) in Cumbria, England. It was begun in the 17th century & restored in the 20th century. You can just sit on the benches there surrounded by the towering topiary feeling transported to another time & another world. You might even imagine yourself as a lady-in-waiting at Queen Elizabeth's court. In the photo at the beginning of this posting, the grounds at Much Wenlock Priory, a 12th century church, located in Shropshire, England also boast some mature, but less fanciful, topiary.

Levens Hall, Cumbria, England

Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire, England, offers intimate topiary in herbaceous borders in the 20th century Arts and Crafts "rooms" of its garden.

Hidcote Manor, Hidcote Bartrim, near Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, England

Penshurst Palace Kent, England

The more traditional topiary at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, England, and at Drummond Castle Gardens in Perthshire, Scotland, are a review of Versailles with its balls, globes, cubes, obelisks, pyramids, cones, and spirals. Victorian Knightshayes Court in Devon, England, presents some amusing topiary in its gardens.

Cliveden, Taplow, Buckinghamshire, England

Drummond Castle, Ochtermuthill, Perthshire, Scotland

Knightshayes Garden, Tiverton, Devon, England

Great Dixter Gardens in East Sussex, England

Harry Potter runs through the great yew topiary gardens at Beckley Park in Oxfordshire, England, in the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Even the rugged clifftop Pormeirion in Gwynedd, Wales, overlooking Cardigan Bay, has topiary tucked into its woodland gardens. Go there only if you are in good shape, which I am not.

Beckley Park, Oxfordshire, England

Topiary is the art of creating sculptures using clipped trees and shrubs. For centuries, gardeners commonly have used evergreen, small leaf or needle, compact plants with dense foliage for topiary, including boxwood, arborvitae, bay laurel, holly, myrtle, common yew, and privet.

The term topiary had appeared in England as early as 1592, when it was referred to as "Topiarie woorke." In 1644, John Evelyn recorded in his diary, "There was much topiary worke, and columns in architecture about the hedges." And in 1680 another English work stated, "No topiary Hedge of Quickset Was e're so neatly cut."

In England, Alexander Pope shot and nearly killed figural topiary in his essay on "Verdant Sculpture" in The Guardian of September 1713, which mockingly described in his imaginary topiary-for-sale catalogue:

Adam and Eve in yew;

Adam a little shattered by the fall of the tree of knowledge in the great storm;

Eve and the serpent very flourishing;

The tower of Babel, not yet finished;

St George in box; his arm scarce long enough, but will be in condition to stick the dragon by next April; and

a quickset hog, shot up into a porcupine, by its being forgot a week in rainy weather.


Some of Pope's contemporaries turned from figural topiary, now held in some distain, to clipped hedges. The clipped hedge is a simple form of topiary used to create boundaries, walls or screens in a garden.


In 1729, Sir Thomas Lee married heiress, Elizabeth Sandys and set about to transform the gardens at Hartwell in Buckinghamshire County, England. Nothing in England's American colonies would match these enormous paths of clipped yew hedges, which served as paths for riding and walking; boundries for playing at bowls, and directing the visitor's line of sight from the formal grounds to the surrounding farmland.


By the middle of the 18th century, Charles Bridgeman and William Kent pretty much pruned the English garden clean of clipped hedges, mazes, and topiary. Fashion banned topiary from England's aristocratic gardens, however, it continued to flourish in cottagers' gardens, where balls, cones, and trees with several cleanly separated tiers were meticulously clipped year after year throughout the 19th century.


The term topiary was seldom, if ever, used in 18th century British America. In the designs of formal gardens around personal dwellings and public buildings especially in the first half of the 18th century, the method of clipping yew or other hedging into realistic or fanciful shapes--columns, balls, or obelisks was simply refered to as clipping.

The Sir Christopher Wren Building at the College of William and Mary in Virginia is the oldest college building in the United States. In 1732, Willliam Dawson reported that the garden in front of the Wren Building was, "...planted with evergreens kept in very good order."

Williamsburg, Virginia, Bodleian Plate England 1740

Ten years later, gardener John Custis noted in Williamsburg, "...the balls or standards having heads as big as a peck and the pyramids in full shape...I had very fine yews balls and pyramids which were established for more than 20 years." And in 1777, Ebenezer Hazard reported seeing the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg, "At this Front of the College is a large Court Yard, ornamented with Walks, Trees cut into different Forms, & Grass."

By 1736 in Boston, Thomas Hancock on Beacon Hill was writing, "Let me know also what you'l Take for 100 Small Yew Trees in the Rough, which I'd Frame up here to my own Fancy."

In July of 1734, the first notice of hedges appeared in Philadelphia, although we cannot be sure the gardener was clipping his hedges into unusual shapes, was a sad one, when the newspaper reported that, "Jacob Lee, a Gardiner, being overcome with the Heat as he was at work clipping of a Hedge, fell down and expired."

Garden planners in Pennsylvania added hedges clipped into a variety of forms to their garden alley ways. In 1754, at Springettsbury near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ezra Stiles reported, "...passing a long spacious walk, set on each side with trees, on the summit of a gradual

In Alexander Graydon's memoirs, he noted the during the 18th century, Israel Pemberton's country seat near Philadelphia, was, "...laid out in the old fashioned style of uniformity, with walks and allies nodding to their brothers, and decorated with a number of evergreens, carefully clipped into pyramidal and conical forms."
d soon after."

John Bartram, son of Pennsylvania botanist William Bartram, wrote to Peter Collinson in 1740, of the garden at William Byrd's estate in Virginia, "Colonel Byrd is very prodigalle...new Gates, gravel Walks, hedges, and cedars finely twined."
ascent...besides the beautiful walk, ornamented with evergreens...Spruce hedges cut into beautiful figures."


Even artisan gardener & silversmith William Faris in 18th century Annapolis, regularly collected holly trees from nearby woods to plant on his city lot and kept them clipped into the form of sugar cones.

In America, topiary re-emerged with a fervor in Colonial Revival gardens 1880–1920. This continued as interest in restoring gardens around historic sites increased. A topiary maze was planted at the Governor's Palace, Colonial Williamsburg, in the 1930s.

The art of Pearl Fryar

The art of topiary, with its living medium, is alive and well in 21st century America. If you have been reading this blog, you already know that I am drawn to self-taught art. One of the most amazing garden artists alive today is South Carolina's extraordinary, self-taught, outsider topiary artist Pearl Fryar.

View through to the topiary at Hanham Court Garden
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