The History of Topiary



As topiary oozes form and precision, it is no wonder that the practice can be traced back to the ancient Greeks who favoured order and formality. Inevitably, the Romans adopted it and it spread throughout the Empire, including Britain, complementing the architectural tone of the era. The diarist Pliny the Younger (61-113AD) has left detailed accounts of hunting scenes, ships and animals clipped out of cypress trees.


The Dark Ages saw topiary forgotten in Britain until the Norman Conquest in 1066, where the practice was revived by French influence. Topiary has since been in and out of fashion; for more than two thousand years it has been used to indicate wealth, status, classical learning and understanding, and the exotic.

The Romans were particularly fond of using patterns like the quincunx – four trees arranged at each corner of a square and a final tree in the centre. In the 12th Century, romantic mazes of clipped evergreens had become fashionable – King Henry I particularly enjoyed these labyrinths, and no doubt his preferment greatly heightened their trend.  Illuminated manuscripts from the 13th Century show monastic gardens with neatly-trimmed plants, possibly box, myrtle or rosemary, used as low hedging around beds of flowers or herbs.

The Golden Age of topiary in Britain, however, occurred in the 16th Century. As wealth and commerce in the Renaissance rose, gardening became more popular. French and Dutch styles were further adopted, influenced by the lavish gardens at Versailles designed by Le Nôtre. The French gardener Guillaume Beaumont, active in England from the 1680s to 1727, was a disciple of Le Nôtre, and eventually became head gardener to James II. He designed the gardens at Hampton Court, Ashton Park and Stoneyhurst in Lancashire, Forde Abbey in Dorset and Levens Hall in Cumbria. The gardens at Levens Hall, along with its topiary, remain largely unchanged today. Topiary gardening reached its height in England during the reign of William and Mary, 1689-1702. William of Orange was partial to a clipped yew which he brought from Holland.


The 18th Century saw a desired return to ‘nature’ for British gardens – think ‘Capability’ Brown and his sweeping landscapes which encompassed elegance along with a connection to the land. Informed taste rebelled against complex and prim shapes, and attacks were made on the forceful control of nature. Thus, gardens in this period were drastically changed, and topiary ceased to be regarded as an important element in garden design. Only a limited number of survivors from the Golden Age of topiary have remained as a result.

King Henry

King Henry

Towards the end of the 19th Century however, a revival took place in the art of topiary. As the shapes and clipped boxes need considerable labour to maintain, they once again showed off wealth and grandeur. Nurseries specialised in the supply of ready-made topiary, shipped from Holland. A proliferation of birds, spirals, spires, balls, dogs, ships, pyramids and even teddy bears can all be seen in photographs of these nurseries and country house gardens from this time. Proving that garden fashion trends dip and rise with wealth and mood, topiary once again declined in favour by 1950, possibly due to the wars, as the time and labour costs made topiary cumbersome.


In recent times, topiary has seen a renewed interest. The modern gardener sees topiary as providing essential structure to a garden rather than just for fanciful purposes, and preservation for historical gardens, such as at Grimsthorpe, has seen topiary maintained and given a new lease of life for the enjoyment of visitors.