The astute garden-lover will always make a point of paying periodical visits to the larger nursery-gardens, for not only will he be able to select plants there from many growing together of the kinds he wants, but he will also learn what is in favour with the public. The nursery is a true reflection of current taste in plants.
During recent years, the visitor to these places will have seen a feature that he did not see in them ten years previously, and that is a colony of clipped shrubs, mostly Confers, reminding him of the quaint figures seen in pictures of old Dutch gardens. Prim are they, and yet with an odd air of perky make-believe about them, like a dog with a shaven back and tufted tail - self-important, but humorously unreal. Grouped together in the nursery, they form a strange conglomerate, for some are cut into the shape of animals or birds and others into the form of domestic articles. They have a bizarre, almost a ludicrous, appearance. But in the garden they are not huddled in this way; on the contrary, they are put in selected places, to vary the interest of the garden.
The revival of topiary has caused heart-searchings to the Nature school of gardeners, who are oppressed by forebodings of a return to the stiff garden of past years. There is no more fear of this than of a general return to ruffs and wigs. Gardening is now so popular that every phase of it receives attention. The ripples of the wave have spread into remote backwaters, but they are only ripples.
Mural decoration, called topia, was practised in the houses of ancient Rome, and topiary is the adjectival form of the word applied to the clipping of trees and shrubs. Like topic and topical, the words come from topos, a place. Topiary work is certainly very old, and it reached the highest stage of popularity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Yew was always the favourite subject, but the Box and Holly were also treated. All these shrubs will bear cutting with impunity.
When the reader reviews the extremes to which topiary went, he cannot wonder that a reaction set in against it. Examples are on record of dogs, fowls and pigs, as well as bottles, boats, seats, spirals, pyramids, tables, birds, jugs, crosses, umbrellas, wigwams, swans, lions and letters of the alphabet cut in Yew or Box.
It is quite likely that topiary first began in the clipping of trees to make them uniform with the architecture of houses among the ancient Greeks. From that to a peacock was not so long a step if we consider that that resplendent bird has long been given a place of honour on the terraces of great mansions. It is beyond doubt that the Romans practised topiary largely.
Fig. Topiary Garden At Brockenhurst, Hants. Photo by F. Mason Good.
It established itself firmly in England in the sixteenth century, and was highly popular in the seventeenth, when Charles II. brought over the famous maker of the gardens at Versailles, Le Notre. Levens Hall, the most famous centre of topiary in England to-day, was given its great feature by Beaumont, who was gardener to James II., and who had studied the methods of Le Notre.
Inasmuch as topiary work was very popular in Holland, it is not surprising that it was given a fillip in England when James II. made hasty way for William of Orange. "Little Hooknose" loved the clipped Yews of the Netherlands, and encouraged their spread in his new kingdom. The result was that topiary ran riot, and men of taste began to revolt against it. About the middle of the eighteenth century a reaction set in, and in a few years clipped trees all but disappeared from gardens. It was not only landscape gardeners like Kent, Bridgeman and Brown, but prominent writers such as Pope and Addison, who attacked them. One can believe that it was the pen which finally vanquished the shears. Topiary still flourished in Holland, and when, towards the end of the nineteenth century, there was something in the nature of a revival, it was from the Netherlands that our traders got their most striking examples. They brought together collections at the large shows, and people paused to gaze in curiosity. Here and there a person bought, and there were just sufficient customers to make the trade fairly lucrative to two or three firms.
Remarkable examples of topiary work still exist in some of the larger English gardens. Levens Hall, Westmorland; and Elvaston Castle, Derby, are two of the most complete, but examples may be found at such places as Compton Wynyates, Mentham Court, Sussex; Montacute, Somerset; Heslington, Yorkshire; Ascott, Buckinghamshire; Witley Court, Worcestershire; Friar Park, Oxfordshire; and in many other gardens. Almost every village shows some specimen or another, if only in the form of a pyramidal Yew or dome-shaped Box. And we must remember that in every one of the many gardens in which we see a Yew hedge we see an example of simple topiary.
What can be said in favour of clipped trees? A well arranged rock garden gives pleasure because it shows beautiful Alpine plants growing in a natural way. In herbaceous borders plants are grouped for colour effects at various seasons of the year. Beds of flowering shrubs give pretty leaf tints in early spring and in autumn, flowers in spring or summer, and in some cases brightly coloured berries in winter. The Rose garden shows the Queen of flowers in beds and on arches, chains and pillars. What does topiary work give us in the way of garden beauty and interest?
The answer must be that topiary is not in any sense gardening as we understand it to-day, and it can only serve a special and quite limited purpose in gardens. It can form one of many features in a large garden. There are garden-lovers whose tastes are catholic, whose means are ample, and who have a wide circle of friends. One can imagine a member of this favoured class who opens his garden freely to his acquaintances (and perhaps, on occasion, and for a particular purpose, to the public) adding a collection of clipped trees to the attractions of his garden, as much to interest his visitors as to please himself. He has an Alpine garden, he has herbaceous borders, he has a Rose garden, he has a Shakespeare garden; to those and other features he adds a topiary garden.
Or there may be a person who loves to recall the sense of old-time peace, seclusion and deliberation. His mind is in the stately, slow-pacing past. He dislikes modern flare and clangour. He sighs for the quietude and perfume of the serene, placid, mellow, old-world garden. The upbuilding of rock gardens impresses him as rather tawdry make-believe, springing from the modern Swiss conducted tour at so many guineas per head. He looks on the herbaceous border as assertive and even violent. Such a person would be happiest in a garden surrounded by tall, thick hedges of Yew, with perhaps a collection of soft-tinted Tea Roses, or of border Carnations, by way of flower-beauty.
There is, perhaps, a suspicion of primness, as certainly there is much of dignity, about such a personality. The mind is composed, reflective, and orderly. One can well imagine it clinging to tradition. It will love the mellowness of old architecture. It has a rich, ripe conservatism. It communes with the old poets and essayists.
There is a suggestion of permanence, of discipline, of substance about an old clipped Yew. It is not an ephemeral thing. It is of the old order. It is a piece of solid architecture, like a weather-stained building that has withstood the tempests of centuries. It is not of the giddy modern generation. And because of its suggestions and associations, it presents a strong appeal to the type of mind indicated.
The reader may have walked among carven trees in some great garden. Has he not found himself overtaken by a hush, a sense of repose? Has not his step lagged involuntarily? Has not the pungent smell of the Box taken him back into his own past? From the moment that he walked under the Yew arch at the entrance of the garden he found himself in another atmosphere. His mood became subdued, almost reverential. He felt himself in commune with the spirits of the mighty dead.
Let us not, then, dismiss topiary in all cases as freak gardening. It is not in a freakish spirit that clipped trees are planted and tended in many places, but out of a genuine respect for the spirit of a past age.