A Revival of English Topiary

From The Book of Topiary (1904) Charles Henry Curtis and William Gibson (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

While visiting some Kent and East Sussex gardens recently, I was struck by the range of topiary we saw.  The yew peacocks at Great Dixter are well known, as are the birds, animals and accomplished geometric forms in yew and box at Charlotte and Donald Molesworth’s garden in Benenden, (which opens to the public for the National Gardens Scheme).  Our travels through villages revealed more topiarised trees and shrubs, often a feature in cottage front gardens.

There is something about topiary that associates pleasingly with cottages and other English vernacular buildings, seeming to complement their scale and sense of history.  The designer Arne Maynard frequently uses these forms as structural elements in his gardens, using the formality of the tightly clipped trees as a contrast to much looser plantings, like a meadow or perennials and roses.

These topiary forms of tiered pyramids, spirals and birds feel quintessentially English, but as with so many garden fashions their origins lie elsewhere – in this case, Boksoop in The Netherlands, according to The Book of Topiary (1904).  This book by Charles Henry Curtis and William Gibson provides a fascinating overview of the art in England from an Edwardian perspective.  Curtis handles the history and Gibson, in his capacity as head gardener at Levens Hall in Cumbria, where the topiary was planted in the 1690s (and remains largely unchanged today) explains about training and maintenance.

From its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries, Curtis argues, topiary in England fell out of favour as the influence of landscape gardening gathered pace, and Victorian gardeners like William Robinson advocated a more naturalistic approach to planting.  However, with the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century and its focus on medieval art and architecture, there was a revival of interest in topiary for domestic gardens.

Curtis mentions two nurseries, William Cutbush & Sons of Highgate, London and J. Cheal & Sons in Crawley, Sussex that in the early 1900s were supplying topiary specimens to the public and showing plants at RHS shows.  The aptly named Herbert J. Cutbush was a regular visitor to Holland, travelling there on most weekends, and it was here that he came across topiary specimens that interested him.  Curtis says:

‘He discovered that some of the best trained and the best furnished specimens of sculptured yew and box were to be found in the farmhouse gardens, in small, almost unknown villages, far from the usual routes of tourists and business-men, and this led to still further explorations.’

Over time, Cutbush got to know the Dutch topiary growers who were located in the Boskoop district, inland from The Hague and Rotterdam.  He persuaded them to sell him plants from their nurseries for import to England, but would also buy specimens from private gardens:

‘One big tree that for sixty years had been the chief ornament of a Dutch blacksmith’s garden was only purchased after a whole day spent in persuasion and the consumption of much Schiedam, and after the purchase was made another week was spent in lifting and packing and removing the tree to the London steamer.’

The trouble and expense of importing plants like this one suggests that the market in England was sufficient to make the effort worthwhile.  The topiary designs that Cutbush saw in Boksoop are described in detail by Curtis:

‘There is a great variety of form in the Dutch clipped trees, but spires surmounted with birds seem to be among the most common and are as easy to produce as most.  For these, and for the peacocks and the spiral or serpentine columns, yew is almost invariably used.’ 

‘Pyramids, mop-heads and blunt cones are among the commonest designs; they do not call for the exercise of much ingenuity, but when these pyramidal trees are cut into several regular and well graded tiers their cost increases considerably.’

Cutbush also reported examples of topiary furniture such as tables with turned legs and armchairs, churches and crosses as well as ‘verdant poultry’:

‘Sitting hens, geese and ducks are common designs, and to protect the verdant poultry one may obtain equally verdant dogs, with or without kennels’

The Dutch topiary shrubs were field grown and Cutbush says that box birds might be trained for 10 – 12 years before they were lifted for export – dogs would need a little longer at 12 – 14 years.  To make the eventual lifting easier, the roots of the shrubs were pruned after a year’s growth.  Curtis and Gibson’s book doesn’t feature any photographs from Holland or the Cutbush nurseries, but there are several photographs from Cheal’s nursery at Crawley, showing many of the topiary forms described.

Today, Boksoop remains a centre for topiary with several nurseries still exporting their shrubs.  And as I witnessed last week, the domestic themed topiary that so inspired Cutbush lives on abundantly in English gardens.

Shirley Hibberd reveals his admiration for the topiary peacock.

Levens Gardens General View.

Peacocks, tables, spirals and boats in yew and box at J. Cheal and Sons, Crawley.

Hens, ducks, peacocks, etc. in box and yew at J. Cheal and Sons, Crawley

Crosses and jugs in yew.

Topiary at Balmoral Cottage, the garden of Charlotte and Donald Molesworth, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Stylised yew peacock at Great Dixter

Shaggy peacock, Great Dixter

A splendid euonymus swan and tiered bay in a front garden, Appledore

Further reading:

The Book of Topiary

European Boxwood and Topiary Society website

1 thought on “A Revival of English Topiary

  1. tonytomeo

    Topiary has gotten so disgraceful for us in the past few decades. I sort of doubt that real topiary like we studied in school was ever really understood or respected here. For a long time through the 1990s, most of what was marketed as topiary was just English ivy grown on frames – and the so-called ‘gardeners’ could not even maintain that(!). Even good topiary does not last, since there is no one here who knows how to maintain it.

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