The house of Levens, on the green banks of the River Kent in Cumbria, is centuries old, and the present Elizabethan structure replaced an even more ancient building with a peel tower, which was used before 1400 as a fortress against the invading Scots.
At the time of James 11 and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ the owner of Levens was James Grahame, a devoted follower of the King and therefore unpopular with the new government when William in succeeded him. Perhaps this, and the lack of money owing to debarment from office, prevented him modernizing the Elizabethan house, which was already somewhat old fashioned. For that we can be grateful. But it did not prevent him planting an elaborate garden. This is the garden we see today – the most famous topiary garden in Britain, and still in perfect shape after nearly three hundred years.
The art of topiary has been a feature of gardens since the earliest times. The word topiary itself derives from the Greek topos (’a place’), thus the Latin word topiarius came to mean ‘the man in charge of the place’, or gardener. We are apt to think of topiary as a typically English garden feature, but it was known to the Romans, and Pliny the Younger describes hedges of shorn box in his garden in Tuscany. At the height of the Roman Empire, their subject races emulated everything which was Roman, and clipped shrubs and neatly harboured bay trees were features of the gardens of what is now Turkey and Asia Minor. There are courtyards of clipped myrtle in the Generalife Gardens in Spain, a relic of the Moors who may well have learned the curious art from their Roman overlords. In fact, as we are told that a yew tree takes a thousand years to grow and a thousand years to die, it is possible that somewhere there is an old yew tree still alive in Britain which was once trained by a Roman soldier for his amusement into an amphora, and a thousand years later provided wood for the bows which won the day at Agincourt. And it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that it could be living still, and strong enough to carry a swing for village children today.
Above: The Elizabethan house of Levens is set in a garden of topiary unique in the world.
Topiary was a feature of Italian and French gardens of the Renaissance, but ‘nowhere was it used so spectacularly as it was in English gardens, and topiary, as a garden embellishment, seems as English as the rose’.
However, in popularity, topiary has had its ups and downs. Francis Bacon, in the early sixteenth century was lukewarm about it. ‘I for my part’, he wrote, ‘do not like images cut out in juniper, or other garden stuff: they be for children. But, little low hedges, round like welts, with some pretty pyramids, I like well.’ Not everyone would share his qualified enthusiasm.
Yew is a dark and noble tree, and Victoria Sackville-West, whose taste was perfect in all gardening matters, describes yew as’… grave and masculine’ and makes a plea to gardeners to aim at ‘heavy and sombre archways, or at huge balls and obelisks’: no pretty pyramids for her.
Joseph Addison delivered a scathing attack on the art of topiary in The Spectator when he wrote,
Our trees rise in cones, globes and pyramids. We see the mark of scissors upon every plant and bush. I do not know whether I am singular in my opinion, but for my own part, I would rather look upon a tree in all its luxuriancy and diffusion of boughs and branches than when it is thus cut and trimmed into a mathematical figure: and can not but fancy that an orchard in flower looks infinitely more delightful than all the little labyrinths of the most finished parterre.
At about the same time, Richard Steele also poked fun at topiary (then definitely going through one of its unfashionable periods) in a passage which became famous, in which he offered, for imaginary sale,
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.
St George in box: his arms scarce long enough, but will be in a condition to stick the dragon by next April.
A green Dragon of the same, with a tail of ground ivy for the present.
An old Maid of Honour in wormwood.
A quick set Hog, shot up into a porcupine.
A lavender Pig, with sage growing in his belly.
Some years ago I recorded, ‘The work of these sharp pens soon swayed the taste of garden owners all over the country . . . the work of sharp axes followed.’ Topiary was no longer smart, and splendid gardens of clipped holly and sculptured yew were swept away all over the country. The box hedges at Kensington Palace were uprooted simply because they made Queen Anne sneeze. The new ‘Romantic’ style won the day- the garden at Levens, mercifully, escaped.
The garden was originally designed for James Grahame by a Frenchman, Beaumont, said to be a pupil of the famous French garden designer, Andre Le Notre, though there is little in his plan for Levens, quite different in scale and feeling, to recall the work of Louis xiv’s most famous of all gardeners. However, Monsieur Beaumont certainly worked at Levens, and the gardener’s house there is still called Beaumont Hall.
It is the fantastic shapes that the yews and box trees have assumed over the centuries which give the garden at Levens its particular character. Some have their own names – The Great Umbrella, for instance, and Queen Elizabeth and Her Maids of Honour.
Though time has dealt roughly with M. Beaumont’s formal plan, and though his trees have, triumphantly, grown out of all proportion to what he originally intended, in part of the garden which the visitor can inspect some semblance of formality survives. Here, south of the Broad Walk, lies an area of nearly 5 acres, lined with imposing beech hedges which give an impression of ordered grandeur of which Le Notre would certainly have approved.
But it is the topiary at Levens which make it such an extraordinary creation. It is a truly memorable garden, and in its way, unique.
OPEN Daily: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. except weekends in the winter. LOCATION On A6 5 miles south of Kendal, 4 miles from M6 /Exit 36).