Topiary is the art of creating sculptures using clipped trees, shrubs and sub-shrubs. The word derives from the Latin word for an ornamental landscape gardener, topiarius, creator of topia or "places", a Greek word that Romans applied also to fictive indoor landscapes executed in fresco. No doubt the use of a Greek word betokens the art's origins in the Hellenistic world that was influenced by Persia, for neither Classical Greece nor Republican Rome developed any sophisticated tradition of artful pleasure grounds.
The plants used in topiary are evergreen, have small leaves or needles, produce dense foliage, and have compact and/or columnar (e.g. fastigiate) growth habits. Common plants used in topiary include cultivars of box (Buxus sempervirens), arborvitae (Thuja spp.), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), holly (Ilex spp.), myrtle (Eugenia or Myrtus species), yew (Taxus species), and privet (Ligustrum species.). Shaped wire cages are sometimes employed in modern topiary to guide untutored shears, but traditional topiary depends on patience and a steady hand; small-leaved ivy can be used to cover a cage and give the look of topiary in a few months.
European topiary dates from Roman times. Pliny's Natural History and the epigram-writer Martial both credit Cneius Matius Calvena, in the circle of Julius Caesar, with introducing the first topiary to Roman gardens, and Pliny the Younger describes in a letter the elaborate figures of animals, inscriptions and cyphers and obelisks in clipped greens at his Tuscan villa (Epistle vi, to Apollinaris). Within the atrium of a Roman house or villa, a place that had formerly been quite plain, the art of the topiarius produced a miniature landscape (topos) which might use the comparable art of stunting trees, also mentioned, disapprovingly, by Pliny (Historia Naturalis xii.6).
Far Eastern topiary
Clipping and shaping of shrubs and trees in China and Japan has been practised with equal rigor, but to entirely different esthetic aims: the artful expression of the "natural" forms of venerably aged pines, given character by the forces of wind and weather. Their most concentrated expressions are in the related arts of Chinese penjing and Japanese bonsai.
Japanese cloud-pruning (illustration) is closest to the European art: the cloudlike forms of clipped growth are designed to be best appreciated after a fall of snow.
From its European revival in the 16th century, topiary has historically been associated with the parterres and terraces in gardens of the European elite and as features in cottage gardens. Traditional topiary forms use foliage pruned and/or trained into geometric shapes: balls or cubes, obelisks, pyramids, cones, tapering spirals, and the like. Representational forms depicting people, animals, and manmade objects have also been popular.
Topiary at Versailles and its imitators was never complicated. Typically low hedges were used, punctuated by potted trees trimmed as balls on standards, interrupted by obelisks at corners were the vertical features of parterre gardens. Sculptural forms were provided by stone and lead sculptures. In Holland, however, the fashion for more complicated topiary designs was established, and this spread to England after 1660.
Decline in the 18th century
In England topiary was all but killed in fashion by the famous satiric essay on "Verdant Sculpture" that Alexander Pope published in The Guardian, 29 September 1713, with its mock catalogue descriptions of
- 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 quickset hog, shot up into a porcupine, by its being forgot a week in rainy weather.
In the 1720s and 1730s the generation of Charles Bridgeman and William Kent swept the English garden clean of its hedges, mazes, and topiary. After topiary fell from grace in aristocratic gardens, however, it continued to be featured in cottagers' gardens, where a single specimen of traditional forms, a ball, a tree trimmed to a cone in several cleanly separated tiers, meticulously clipped and perhaps topped with a topiary peacock, was passed on as an heirloom.
The revival of topiary in English gardening parallels the revived "Jacobethan" taste in architecture; John Loudon in the 1840s was the first garden writer to express a sense of loss at the topiary that had been removed from English gardens. The love of this style made bushes shaped like stuff very popular in the Victorian era. The following generation, represented by Shirley Hibberd, rediscovered the charm of specimens as part of the mystique of the "English cottage garden", which was as much invented as revived from the 1870s:
- It may be true, as I believe it is, that the natural form of a tree is the most beautiful possible for that tree, but it may happen that we do not want the most beautiful form, but one of our own designing, and expressive of our ingenuity" (Shirley Hibberd).
The classic statement of the British Arts and Crafts revival of topiary among roses and mixed herbaceous borders was Topiary: Garden Craftsmanship in Yew and Box by Nathaniel Lloyd (1867-1933), who had retired in middle age and taken up architectural design under the encouragement of Sir Edwin Lutyens: Lloyd's own timber-framed manor house, Great Dixter, Sussex, remains an epitome of this stylized mix of topiary with "cottagey" plantings that was practised by Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Luyens in a fruitful partnership.
Topiary, which had featured in few 18th-century American gardens, came into favour with the Colonial Revival gardens and the grand manner of the American Renaissance, 1880–1920. The beginning of a concern with the revival and maintenance of historic gardens in the 20th century led to the replanting of the topiary maze at the Governor's Palace, Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s.
Topiary in the twentieth century
Notable topiary displays
- Railton is a part of the Kentish Municipality, Tasmania's "Outdoor Art Gallery". Railton's topiary is one facet of the outdoor art gallery. There are many topiaries underway in various stages of growth.
- The Samban-Lei Sekpil in Manipur, India, begun in 1983 and recently measuring 18.6m (61ft) in height, is the world's tallest topiary, according to Guinness Book of World Records. It is clipped of Duranta erecta, a shrub widely used in Manipuri gardens, into a tiered shape called a sekpil or satra that honours the forest god Umang Lai.
- Royal Palace at Bang Pa-In in Thailand
- A premier topiary garden started in the late 17th century by M. Beaumont, a French gardener who laid out the gardens of Hampton Court (which were recreated in the 1980s).
- Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire
- A 16th-century garden revised in 1708
- Stiffkey, Norfolk
- Several informal designs including a line of elephants at Nellie's cottage and a guitar.
- Hidcote Manor Garden (Gloucestershire, England)
- Knightshayes Court (Devon, England)
- Great Dixter Gardens (East Sussex, England): Laid out by Nathaniel Lloyd, the author of a book on topiary, and preserved and extended by his son, the garden-writer Christopher Lloyd.
- Much Wenlock Priory, Shropshire
- Drummond Castle Gardens (Perthshire, Scotland)
- Portmeirion (Snowdonia, Wales)
- Château de Villandry, France
- Villa Lante (Bagnaia, Italy)
- Castello Balduino (Montalto Pavese, Italy)
- North America
- 140-year-old topiary garden of native white pine and arborvitae.
- A topiary garden in Maryland established by award-winning topiary artist Harvey Ladew in the late 1930s. Located approximately halfway between the north Baltimore suburbs and the southern Pennsylvania border. Ladew's most famous topiary is a hunt, horses, riders, dogs and the fox, clearing a well-clipped hedge, the most famous single piece of classical topiary in North America.
- Topiary Garden at Longwood Gardens (Kennett Square, Pennsylvania)
- Columbus Topiary Park at Old Deaf School (Columbus, Ohio)
- A public garden in downtown Columbus that features a topiary tableau of Georges Seurat's famous painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
- At various Disney theme parks and hotels.
- Outside the Tavern-on-the-Green restaurant in Central Park in New York.
- Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas
- Arborsmith Studios in Oregon
- Curtis, Charles H. and W. Gibson, The Book of Topiary (reprinted, 1985 Tuttle), ISBN 0-8048-1491-0
- Lloyd, Nathaniel. Topiary: Garden Art in Yew and Box (reprinted, 2006)