This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
Old-fashioned gardening embraced a great amount of topiary work, or trimming shrubbery into figures, without which the grounds adjoining the house were considered incomplete. This continued till the time of Addison and Pope, whose better taste attempted a reform.
AN OLD CLIPPED YEW-TREN.
We introduce a specimen from Elvaston Castle. It is an old clipped Yew, forming an arbor 14 feet square, and 18 feet high. It was moved twenty-five miles many years ago, and is supposed to be upwards of one hundred years old. It is one tree, the stem running up the centre, and is perhaps one of the best examples of the topiary treatment extant.
Though some might object to the figures on the top, a bush or tree, in this manner, so as to form a bower, or shelter, is not improper; it is allowable to make utility the subject of ornament, a rule founded in nature and reason; few objects are more interesting than an arbor made by training the limbs of a weeping ash, grafted high up, or trimming a yew into a useful shape. Box-trees and bushes are sometimes thus treated, to the great amusement of young persons.
Fantastic topiary work may be said to have been killed by Pope, who wrote the following satirical article in the Guardian, No. 173. Our readers will pardon the space it occupies for its information and humor. After describing the Garden of Alcinous from Homer's Odyssey, he goes on: -
"How contrary to this- simplicity is the modern practice of gardening! We seem to make it our study to recede from nature, not Only in the various tonsure of greens into the most regular and formal shapes, but even in monstrous attempts beyond the reach of the art itself. We run into sculpture, and are yet better pleased to have our trees in the most awkward figures of men and animals, than in the most regular of their own.
'Here interwoven branches form a wall, And from the living fence green turrets rise; There ships of myrtle sail in seas of box; A green encampment yonder meets the eye, And loaded citrons bearing shields and spears.'
I believe it is no wrong observation, that persons of genius, and those who are most capable of art, are always most fond of nature; as such are chiefly sensible, that all art consists in the imitation and study of nature. On the contrary, people of the common level of understanding are principally delighted with the little niceties and fantastical operations of art, and constantly think that finest which is least natural. A citizen is no sooner proprietor of a couple of yews, but he entertains thoughts of erecting them into giants, like those of Guild-Hall. I know an eminent cook, who beautified his country-seat with a coronation dinner in greens; where you see the champion flourishing on horseback at one end of the table, and the queen, in perpetual youth, at the other.
For the benefit of all my loving countrymen of this curious taste, I shall here publish a catalogue of greens to be disposed of by an eminent town gardener, who has lately applied to me upon this head. He represents, that for the advancement of a politer sort of ornament in the villas and gardens adjacent to this great city, and, in order to distinguish those places from the mere barbarous countries of gross nature, the world stands much in need of a virtuoso gardener who has a turn to sculpture, and is thereby capable of improving upon the ancients of his profession in the imagery of evergreens. My correspondent is arrived to such perfection, that he cuts family pieces of men, women, or children. Any ladies that please, may have their own effigies in myrtle, or their husbands in horn-beam. He is a puritan wag, and never fails when he shows his garden, to repeat that passage in the Psalms: ' Thy wife shall be as the fruitful vine, and thy children as olive branches round thy table.' I shall proceed to his catalogue, as he sent it for my recommendation.
'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.
'A green dragon of the same, with a tail of ground-ivy for the present.
'N.B. These two not to be sold separately.
' Edward, the Black Prince, in cypress.
'A laurestine bear in blossom, with a juniper hunter in berries.
'A pair of giants, stunted, to be sold cheap.
'A Queen Elizabeth in phylyrea, a little inclining to the green sickness, but of full growth.
'Another Queen Elizabeth in myrtle, which was very forward, but was injured by being too near a savine.
'An old maid of honor in wormwood.
'A topping Ben Jonson in laurel.
'Divers eminent modern poets in bays, somewhat blighted, to be disposed of, a pennyworth.
'A quickset hog shot up into a porcupine, by its being forgot a week in rainy weather.
'A lavender pig, with sage growing in his belly.
'Noah's ark in holly, standing on the mount; the ribs a little damaged for want of water.' "
Lord Bacon, in the forty-sixth of his essays, describes what he calls the platform of a princely garden, which is very superior to the description which Sir William Temple has given in his essay, entitled The Gardens of Epicurus, written in a subsequent age. This is alluded to by Mason, in his English Garden, thus.: -
"Yes, sagest Verulam, "Twas thine to banish from the royal groves Each childish vanity of crisped knot And sculptural foliage; to the lawn restore Its ample space, and bid it feast the sight With verdure pure, unbroken, unabridged: For verdure soothes the eye, as roseate sweets The smell, or music's melting strains the ear".
One of the old time absurdities which I hope may never be revived in America. Any extent of waggery and burlesque may be applied to- such nonsense with justice. I have seen now and then an abortive effort at the thing in this country, but, with a thorough contempt of the puerile taste that dictated it.