Topiary is back in vogue, but its roots go back a long way. We visit the queen of shears, Charlotte Molesworth, to find out more about the enduring appeal of sculpting bushes
Words: Sarah Cleaver
Photography: Natasha Marshall
In deepest December Charlotte Molesworth’s garden in the Weald of Kent has an eerie beauty. ‘The thing about topiary is that it does come to life in the winter. In the summer it’s slightly lost in the exuberance of everything else,’ says the topiary gardener, as I spy stray tendrils disrupting the smooth surface of a box bird, and bare branches of deciduous trees making wispy auras around the heads of tiered evergreen pyramids. You can peer at the view through naked spheres of thorns and cloud-pruned shrubs.
It’s a cold day, three weeks before the end of the year, and like many of us, Charlotte’s mind is on the future. ‘My question, at the moment, is how I take this garden forward, and what will its fate be.’ While many people’s plans have been affected by Covid, gardeners are facing another pandemic: the dual threat of box blight and the voracious box tree caterpillar, which threaten to put an end to the shrub that has been a staple of English gardens since Roman Britain. As someone whose grounds contain a ‘ridiculous amount of box’, Charlotte admits she’s daunted by the prospect of treating the problem and ‘maybe changing the whole garden’
This might sound like a heartbreaking state of affairs given the fact that she has spent over 40 years developing this one-acre garden in Benenden into one of the best topiary displays in the UK, but Charlotte insists that constant editing is an essential aspect of this artform, especially if space is limited. ‘You are in control, you are the conductor. Every plant has got to pay its way, you can’t let it take up space and think you’re stuck with it.’
For Charlotte, this commanding side of topiary gardening sits hand in hand with its opposite: an acceptance of ephemerality. ‘It’s the birds’ garden for six months, you don’t want to start cutting it when their babies are in there. They start nesting in March/April, they finish by the end of August, and then we can get back in there.’ Many times during our conversation, Charlotte refers to nature having its way – the roses and brambles that suddenly spring forth through smooth topiary surfaces, how she loves the ‘ramshackle chaos’ of her garden in winter, losing plants and the new opportunities that come after loss. Despite her fears about the ‘wretched creatures’, as she calls the pests taking over her boxtree, her attitude is overwhelmingly cheerful.
The history of topiary shows this sort of passion growing and waning through the centuries. It dates back to Ancient Rome with the trimming and shaping of cypress trees. Whimsical animal shapes, obelisks and inscriptions originated there, then balls, cones, spirals and pyramids were established in the topiary revival of the 16th century, along with maze-like parterre gardens, often a display of power and control. By 1713 the satirist Alexander Pope was mocking neglected and unfinished topiary in an essay entitled Verdant Sculpture: ‘St George in box; his arm scarce long enough, but will be in condition to stick the dragon by next April; and a quickset hog, shot up into a porcupine, by its being forgot a week in rainy weather.’
Ashamed of such imperfect works in progress, English aristocrats cleared their gardens of topiary and began in a new naturalistic style. But the trend couldn’t be held back for long and reemerged in the Victorian era, and again in the 1960s when, inspired by the great gardens of Europe, but too impatient to wait for his own shrubs to grow, Walt Disney instructed his gardeners to use time-saving methods to create his Fantasyland menagerie in California. Using frames as guides, and stuffing them with moss and other natural materials, the Disney method became known as portable topiary and its popularity spread across the rest of America. This use of perennials as child-friendly decoration sparked the imaginations of creatives, who subverted the medium. Frightening topiary figures have since been used to creepy effect by authors from Edward Gorey to Daniel Handler writing as Lemony Snicket. Spooky bushes pop up to scare adults too: think of the hedge animals coming to life in Stephen King’s The Shining, and Edward Scissorhands’ fantastical creations.
Over the 20th century, topiary lost a bit of its allure and became a signifier of suburban tackiness. It’s difficult to ascertain just how and when topiary became kitsch, but artist Jeff Koons’s ‘Puppy’ – a 12m-tall West Highland terrier sculpture made from turf and flowers – might have played a role.
A tension has certainly emerged between high and low topiary, illustrated by a Financial Times story in 2008 of a couple in Essex who responded to demands
from their neighbours to keep their hedges in check by clipping them into two erect phalluses. It seems there are as many approaches to topiary as there are personality types.
‘People just want to be themselves. Topiary is not prescriptive and there’s not only one way,’ says Charlotte, whose garden includes dogs and peacocks, balls and chess pieces. ‘In my garden I’ve allowed other people in and they’ve made their mark.’ Fellow topiary designer Darren Lerigo has taken over a proportion of the hedges in her garden at Balmoral Cottage, his fluid and organic style mixing with her playful birds and formal shapes. The two teach workshops to gardeners of all abilities.
The intrinsically democratic nature of topiary is undeniable. The practice is open to anyone with a plant and a pair of scissors. ‘From a palace to a pot,’ is one of Charlotte’s sayings. This is the essence of her approach – democratic, playful and patient – and why she’s the ideal role model for a generation who are less blessed with space and security than the previous one. Her own garden was started on cuttings and seedlings of box and yew. How long did it take her to feel that her hard work was paying off?
‘I see a garden in seven-year cycles,’ she says. ‘By seven years, it won’t really have done anything, you’ll just be getting a garden planted up and starting to grow. After 14 years, it’s developing. In 21 years it’s really mature. That’s if you start from scratch. Wealthy people can buy time, they’re buying maturity. If you start big you’ve got to have deep pockets, but if you start little you’ve just got to wait.’
What tips would she give to those just starting out? ‘You must tell your readers about the importance of good tools. These shears are just like an extension of the body. Sideways, upside down, you can use them in any position.’ I have a try with the shears and agree that they are indeed a joy to snip with. For those with established shrubs already in their gardens, Charlotte also recommends taking the lower boughs off to lift them, and freeing the ground underneath for something else.
In the digital age, topiary has grown again. On TikTok, a video of a boxwood ball tagged #topiary and #oddlysatisfying has 3.4m likes. In the summer of 2021, an American reality television series entitled Clipped featured Martha Stewart as a judge and pitted topiary artists against each other to win a grand prize of $50,000. Google searches for the artform have increased by 60 percent over the last 12 months.
I suggest to Charlotte that this renewed interest may reflect our yearning to concentrate, to seek an escape from the technology that’s gradually stealing our focus. Charlotte agrees, describing her feeling when clipping as a ‘flow state’.
‘When you’re making anything you get that energy flow, a rush. I think that’s why it’s so enjoyable because you have to concentrate. You can think of other things but in a way it’s better if you don’t. You’re looking after a life, and you’ve got to be tuned in. They don’t stay constant, it’s evolving the whole time. And that’s a nice thing to take you out of all this other business going on.’