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Saturday, April 27, 2013


Disney topiary--the art form comes to America
When I mentioned to my wife that I planned to write on topiary sculpture this morning, her reaction was, "Isn't that redundant?" Of course, I always listen to my wife so I changed the title. My own first exposure to topiary came in 1974 when my wife and I made our first trip to the newly opened Disney World in Orlando. I'd never even heard of the term, much less seen what the creative genius of Disney horticulturalists could do to poor, defenseless shrubbery. This first exposure was, however, some of the best this side of the Atlantic had to offer (and remains so today). Disney plant artists were very much responsible for sparking interest in the U.S. for an art form with deep roots (pun intended) in Europe dating back at least to the 16th century. 

Chateau Vilandry, French gardening at its best
In Europe, Vilandry Gardens (above), sprawling out before the Vilandry Chateau (dating from 1532) in France's Loire Valley; or the Marqueyssac Chateau Gardens (below, left) in Vezac (dating from 1861), are among the most impressive historic topiary seed beds; the former being traditional, the latter a more modern and free-flowing style. (Vilandry Gardens are in north-central France, while the Marqueyssac Gardens are in south-central part of the country.) Don't expect to see cute little green critters at either place. Those, for the most part, have their origin in England where topiary took on a more whimsical expression following its revival in 1800s as seen in the print of Levens Hall (below) near Cumbria.
Levens Hall, 1833, the English contribution.

The Marqueyssac gardens, Vezac, France--
far removed from the strict geometry of Vilandry
or Versailles
One can imagine topiary having originated when some bored gardener started getting creative with a pair of shears (ala Edward Scissorhands). His employer, being startled by the man's talent, asked for more. At first geometry dominated the designs, punctuated by architectural spheres, cones, pyramids, and obelisks, literally in a maze of ever growing complexity and proportions. Basically all art starts as two-dimensional design. When the third dimension is visualized, it's not surprising that various garden creatures, birds, squirrels, deer, and gnomes were hiding just around each hedgerow.

Topiary Bridge, 2008
Olympics, Beijing
There is also an oriental aspect and history, both Chinese and Japanese, though in both cases the emphasis seems to be on orchestrating an appearance of natural growth rather then human design. However the Garden Bridge (above) from Beijing's Olympic extravaganza indicates an encroaching European mentality into their ancient topiary aesthetic. The Japanese form of topiary has traditionally been seen in their long affection for bonsai trees, which adds a miniature, indoor element to the art.

The Longleat Maze near Warminster, England
Topiary began with merely trimming various dense hedges as in England's Longleat Maze (above). Before long trimming proved insufficient so topiary artists began tying and training the growth of their works of art. Next came cages, growing the plant inside wire sculptural boundaries, which meant virtually anyone could maintain their shape using the barely concealed wire framework as a guide. In more recent times, topiary artist (Disney's among them) have taken to growing the greenery on the outside of such frames covered with a binding mesh. The latter allows for the addition of plant life and flowers of various and appropriate colors adding yet another dimension to the art (below) while also making them portable. Topiary purist might object to this more recent development, but such reservations fly in the face of one of the most important values inherent in any form of art--that it be a living, growing, evolving entity. Never is this more obviously the case than in the fine art of creatively manhandling plant life.

Topiary art about to take flight.

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