The Wivenhoe penises illustrate well the tensions besetting modern topiary. Wivenhoe is one of those bucolic English villages where the conventionally houseproud still abound, so it is easy to imagine the curtains twitching furiously when a young couple moved into the area and refused to clip their hedges.
Relentless badgering from locals, who argued that the unshorn bushes lowered the tone of the street, seemed to fall on deaf ears. But the couple finally gave in to the moral pressure and topiarised their front hedge into a welcoming arch consisting of two excited male members.
Although more ironic than vulgar, their creation does point to a division between high topiary and low. The former encompasses the clipped, graceful landscape features – often abstract geometric shapes – that have inhabited the grounds of European aristocratic properties for the past 400 years. The latter is represented by the evergreen helicopters, Mickey Mice, steam trains, bananas, horses and crocodiles that loom, giant-sized, from suburban yards.
Now is the season to appreciate either kind of topiary, which never looks better than in winter when a coating of snow or frost enhances its careful structure. Designers are switched on to its charms and there are several topiary gardens planned for this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Philip Nixon’s, inspired by the Tate Modern gallery, contains beds of mixed perennial flowers seen through box-hedge frames while Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden will include a hornbeam grove with pruned foliage “clouds” floating in mid-air.
Neither design sounds in the slightest bit vulgar but for Jenny Hendy, author of A Practical Guide to Topiary, published this month, there is nothing wrong with the rudest kinds of clipping. “Gardens are all about self-expression,” she says. “Eccentric topiary can be delightful. It makes people smile. There’s a danger of being too snooty with topiary and regarding it as the preserve of arbiters of taste.”
In its origins, topiary displays the seeds of both folk and refined traditions. The practice goes back at least to the Romans, when it was the preserve of the wealthy few who could afford a hedge-tending slave, a topiarius. Yet the form was remarkably free. The Roman senator Pliny the Younger, describing the garden of his first-century Tuscan villa, speaks of “diverse animals in box hedge” and “a thousand different forms”.
The Romans spread topiary throughout the known world yet it would have died with the demise of their empire, in the dark ages, had it not been for its furtive cultivation in monasteries. Topiary flourished once again during the Renaissance, which was when it put down its deep roots in aristocratic gardens, blooming most magnificently at Versailles. But it was again almost to disappear in the 18th century, under the influence of “Capability” Brown’s naturalistic landscaping, until the Victorians, with a penchant for aesthetic twiddling, revived it once more.
Today, topiary both attracts lovers of kitsch – encompassed by the artist Jeff Koons’ wantonly vulgar, enormous “Puppy” – as well as luring lovers of Latin. One topiary retailers’ group grandly promotes itself with a golden banner inscribed “Domus de Topiarius”.
The European Topiary Society – founding secretary the Countess Véronique Goblet d’Alviella – names its serious-sounding journal after Roman slave Topiarius. Speaking for the society, Roger Last, a former BBC gardening filmmaker, says its aims are high-minded. “Topiary teddy bears and helicopters are amusing and have a place but they are a diversion from the predominantly sophisticated use of topiary over the centuries,” he says.
Topiary, he suggests, should have a particular relationship to the landscape. That often takes the form of reflection: “If you have a very flat landscape, which you can see beyond the garden, you might emphasise it with horizontal hedges. If you have an undulating landscape, you could pick it up with hedges that curve and sweep.”
According to Last, the most dramatic pieces should involve a certain amount of contrast, with highly unnatural, strictly geometrical shapes among the most compelling uses of topiary. Last says: “They may be sculptures in their own right or used as hedges to subdivide the garden in intricate ways.”
Intelligent topiary is not confined to the past, he says citing the wave hedges at Thames Barrier Park in London and the stupendous, surgical but shapely hornbeam buttresses at the Manoir d’Eyrignac in France.
Perhaps the problem with pop culture topiary is its lack of meaning. Aristocratic topiary was trying to express something, albeit dominion over man and nature and rather too flamboyantly in the case of Louis XVI. Japanese plant sculpture, niwaki, clips trees to appear old and bowed because of the association of age with wisdom. Disney figures, by contrast, are likely to rest only fleetingly in the mind.
Yet topiarists are fashioning new meaning. Hendy speaks approvingly of turf sculptures, a form of “land art” that designers are increasingly placing in large private gardens. The renowned Dutch gardener Piet Oudolf has perfected “cloud topiary”, modelled on the loose, organic shapes of farmhouse hedges. Today, he tells me, “the emphasis is on ecology – low-maintenance native hedges requiring little water”.