Topiarist elves and mediaeval gardens

For a change, I thought that this week’s blog post could be something a bit different, somewhat tangential to writing historical fiction, but by no means completely unrelated to my research interests. For, many months ago, when I first dipped my toe into Facebook’s scary waters (as they then seemed), I submitted a post about topiary, and I’m going to take a brief look at “shrub sculpture” once again.


You might not much care for topiary – clipped box, yew and suchlike – but I really rather like it. I maintain a few little box hedges and balls in my own garden. But, in the Vercors mountains, in south eastern France, an area where we’ve been going for our summer holidays for twenty five years, there are certain remote mountain roads where you will find hundreds of clipped box hedges and sculptures. There are hedges, with straight sides and flat tops, and balls and pyramids and, most astonishing of all, funny faces, and all of them are on genuinely isolated mountain roads.

It seems almost magical, as if elves have done it!

The first time we saw them, very many years ago, we thought it hilarious that someone was apparently travelling these mountain roads with a pair of topiary shears. Now, we still think it’s delightful that someone – who I wonder? – takes the trouble to do all this. Is he/she alone or is there a gang of them? And does someone pay for it to be done? And why?

We have never seen the topiarist(s), even though some of the clippings have clearly been quite recent. We live in hope that, maybe, one day… Unless, of course, it is the elves.

But, actually, if anybody does know the answers to my questions, I’m not sure I really want to be enlightened. For I think the idea of the topiarists being elves is just too charming…

Photograph by author

Photograph by author

Photograph by author

Photograph by author

Anyway, seeing the mountain sculptures yet again this year set me wondering about how long topiary had been an art, and, specifically, whether they had topiary in mediaeval gardens, given my particular interest in mediaeval times.

In Europe, apparently, the Romans practised the art of topiary. Both Pliny and Martial mentioned it, and Roman shrub sculpture included animals and obelisks, as well as more straightforward clipped hedges and cones.

It seems that topiary might then have died out, in Europe anyway, for several centuries. Disappointingly, I think it is probably true that there was no topiary in mediaeval gardens, or at least not in gardens of the fourteenth century, for I have not so far tracked down any helpful images of before 1400. (Although if anyone knows of some, I’d love to see them.) However, illustrations certainly do exist of clipped shrubs, in tubs and in garden beds, from later in the fifteenth century, although the topiary does generally seem to be quite simple, mostly clipped balls or pyramids and a characteristically medieval form called “estrade”, which was a sort of “layered cake” design – something like this…

Illustration taken from The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg. Source unspecified.

A much later picture, of the eighteenth century gardens of Powis Castle in Wales, shows similar “layered” clipped trees planted in the ground.

A view of Powis Castle with formal gardens, c.1780. Image in the public domain

In the sixteenth century, though, topiary was revived with much greater enthusiasm and expression, on a grand scale in the gardens of wealthy Europeans, but also in the more domestic setting of cottage gardens. Yet, despite the grand scale of their settings, some parterres in the gardens of castles and great houses were often again quite simple in their overall design, with low clipped hedges punctuated by the occasional pyramid, and trees in tubs, clipped generally into balls.

The glorious gardens at Château de Villandry in France illustrate how this relatively simple style might have looked, though of course on an astonishing scale.

Photograph by David Hughes

The fashion for more complicated “shrub sculpture” came from Holland, and spread to England in the late seventeenth century. However, it apparently fell out of fashion in the following century, among the gentry at least, when, as I understand it, some landscape gardeners must have gone a bit over the top with the complexity or, perhaps, sheer silliness of their designs and drew howls of ridicule.

But, in the nineteenth century, the art underwent yet another revival with, first, architectural topiary – essentially garden “rooms” enclosed by trimmed hedges – becoming popular, and, eventually, the more sculptural clipping returned as well.

Nowadays, it seems that topiary is more popular than ever, with the most wonderful examples of “grand designs”, such as those at Château de Villandry, and many other astonishing great gardens around the world, and a myriad different and sometimes extremely quirky designs of all shapes and sizes.

Beckley Park, Oxfordshire. Photograph by Vivian Garrido, via Wikimedia Commons

Rufford Old Hall, Lancashire (National Trust). Photograph by Mike Peel (

The extraordinary yew hedge, trimmed into abstract, cloud-like forms, planted at Powis Castle, Wales (National Trust) in the 18th century or earlier. Photograph by Sjwells53, via Wikimedia Commons


And so to return to the French mountain topiarists… I was amused to see this example of shrub sculpture at the National Trust house Kingston Lacy, in Dorset.

Photograph by Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

And it so reminded me of one of those photographs I took on my holiday in France that I wondered if perhaps the Vercors elves had taken a holiday in Dorset before they set to with their shears…

One thought on “Topiarist elves and mediaeval gardens

  1. Pingback: Those pesky topiary elves again…! – Carolyn Hughes Author

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