Category Archives: Topiary

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

Link

Other people’s houses (and gardens) have always excited our curiosity. Today’s books and magazines dedicated to the latest styles in domestic architecture, interior design and gardens give us ideas, inspiration, aspiration. As visitors they allow us into houses we will never live in, guests of owners we will never know. In these worlds everything is perfect; there is no dust, no unfinished decorating projects.

De Zegepraalende Vecht  (the triumphant Vecht) could be seen as an interesting precursor of the modern lifestyle publication. Published in Amsterdam in 1719 it records the most notable houses and gardens on the river Vecht, illustrated in meticulous detail by Daniel Stopendael.

The Vecht, a branch of the Rhine originating in Utrecht, was already home to medieval castles but in the 17th century became the place for the newly wealthy from Amsterdam to build lusthooven or recreational houses. Whilst not on the scale of a royal palace, these are grand houses, by most people’s standards, which would have been used by their owners in the summer months.

Daniel Stopendael (1672 – 1726) was an artist and engraver based in Amsterdam producing architectural drawings and maps.  His father Bastiaan followed the same profession.

In his book, we don’t see inside the buildings, but the exteriors and the layouts of the gardens give a fascinating insight into the styles of architecture and garden design that were fashionable in the Netherlands at this time.  Larger houses, such as Hoogevechts, command several pages depicting all the features of the garden, while smaller houses have just a single page.

The influence of French garden design is everywhere, in the formal avenues, parterres, the hedges, topiary and the symmetry. The captions at the foot of each illustration are in Dutch and French.  A commentary on Gunterstein (one of the smaller houses mentioned in the book) describes how the French born owner Magdelena Poulle would ‘use prints of the latest French gardens to create designs, garden furniture, statues and features’. It seems likely this book might have been used in the same way, by those looking for ideas for their gardens.

Alongside the gardens Stopendael supplies glimpses of ordinary life on this stretch of waterway; people fishing, travelling, visiting; sometimes gardeners can be seen at work.  Many of the gardens use water from the river which is diverted to form canals and feed elaborate fountains.

The symmetry of the double fronted houses is repeated in the design of the gardens, with their lines of trees, hedges, and spaced topiary. The planting is precise and controlled. The trees are spaced evenly and pruned so that their naturalistic shape is preserved, and their height is maintained in a close relationship with the house (at least, at this point in the garden’s development). The hedges and topiary are meticulously clipped into solid geometric shapes in contrast to the looser form of the trees.

Wooden trellis supporting a line of espaliered trees together with a gardener and wheelbarrow.

Climbing plants are supported by wooden trellis on the wall of the house and the roof of the smaller building.

Interesting wooden seats either side of the garden gates.

Do you think these animals were allowed off their rectangular island from time to time?

I’m intrigued by Groenevechts (pictured below) where the planting becomes an extension of the building. On either side of the house are green ‘walls’ with a parapet and openings suggesting windows and a door.  A man passes through one of the green doorways to the garden beyond.

This text can be found at archive.org where you can also enlarge the illustrations and inspect them more closely – link below:

De Zegepraalende Vecht

Many of these houses still survive and can be identified via http://rijksmonumenten.nl/