Topiary Labyrinth

Mazes and Labyriths, by W. H. Matthews, [1922]

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CHAPTER XIV
THE TOPIARY LABYRINTH, OR HEDGE MAZE

THE art of trimming hedges of evergreens is of great antiquity; probably it is almost as old as horticulture itself.

The Romans made much use of the services of the topiarius, or hedge-trimmer—he is referred to by Cicero and other writers—and it is quite possible that they had shrubs or bushes trained to enclose winding paths in the manner of a hedge maze.

In Pliny's "Natural History" (Book XVI, Ch. 33) the cypress is spoken of as being clipped and trimmed to form hedges or lengthened out in various designs for ornamental purposes. In Book XV he tells us that a shrub called taxa is also used in ornamental gardening, from which we might conclude that the yew (taxus) was intended. From the description in the context, however, it is more likely that Pliny was speaking of a plant something like our "butcher's broom" (Ruscus aculeatus). He also mentions the box and a species of laurel as being suitable for this kind of work.

A hint of something like a hedge maze is given in one of the epistles of the younger Pliny, where he describes the gardens of his villa in Tuscany. He speaks of having a hippodromus, a kind of circus consisting of many paths separated by box hedges and ornamented with topiary work.

We do not, however, find any actual description of

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an indubitable hedge maze in the works of the classic writers. Amongst monastic manuscripts of the middle ages occur a few passages which have been thought to refer to something of the kind. For instance Henry, Abbot of Clairvaux, in speaking metaphorically of labyrinthine entanglements, says, "Non habent certos aditus, semitas ambulant circulares, et in quodam fraudium labyrintho monstra saevissima reconduntur" ("They have no definite approaches, but wander about in circular side-tracks, and most savage monsters are concealed in their labyrinth of deceptions"); but he may very well have been alluding simply to the traditional Cretan Labyrinth and not to actual constructions of his own period.

A perhaps more striking passage is that in a "History of the Counts of Guines, A.D. 800 to 1200," by Lambert of Ardres (Lambertus Ardensis), who lived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Speaking of the building of a large residence at Ardres for Count Arnold, in the twelfth century, he says:

"Quam quidem Broburgensis artifex vel carpentarius, in hujus artis ingenio parum discrepans a Dedalo fabrefecit et carpentavit nomina Lodevicus et de ea fere inextricabilem fecit laberinthum et effigiavit, penus penori, cameram camerae, diversorium diversorio concludens …"; that is to say, a certain workman named Louis of Bourbourg, with a skill in woodwork very little different from that of Daedalus, was employed in building the house and made there a nearly inextricable labyrinth, containing recess within recess, room within room, turning within turning. Here again the description hardly answers to that of a hedge maze, but rather indicates an elaborate architectural structure and probably refers to nothing more than a large wooden house.

The common belief that our own King Henry II concealed his paramour "the fair Rosamond" within a maze at Woodstock may possibly, as sceptical historians aver, have no firmer foundations than that afforded by the

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imaginative efforts of mediaeval romancers, but from what we have just quoted it is evident that contrivances of the kind described in the legend may have been in existence not only in Henry's time but even in the previous century. In view of the great popularity of the story throughout succeeding generations we cannot altogether ignore it, but we will discuss it more conveniently in a later chapter.

The maze was introduced into the Low Countries, according to a book on Architecture in Belgium, some time during the thirteenth century, but this statement may be merely an inference from Lambert's History quoted above.

In France, as we have already seen, the pavement labyrinths were sometimes known as "dédales" or "maisons de Dédalus," in reference of course to the "house" built by Daedalus for the Minotaur, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries we find the same titles applied to mazes formed of shrubs. Charles V, in the fourteenth century, is said to have laid out a maison de Dédale in the gardens of the Hotel de St. Paul in Paris.

Of interest on this point is an Order of the Court of the Duchy of Anjou, dated September 18, 1477, in which the people of the Duchy were required to pay twelve livres to the keeper of King Réné's castle at Baugé "pour la nourriture des ouyseaux et nestoyer les espèces qu’il a en garde … et reffaire le Dédalus qui est és jardrins dudit lieu de Baugé."

We also read of a dédalus in the park of Louise de Savoie in 1513.

A sixteenth-century maze is depicted in a landscape by Tintoretto which is exhibited in the Queen's Private Chamber at Hampton Court Palace (No. 524 [787]). In the centre of the maze are seen four ladies seated at a table, their attendants standing by. In the background is the palace to which the maze and surrounding pleasure-grounds evidently appertain.

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Hans Holbein, an early contemporary of Tintoretto, is also said to have painted a maze of this description.

Many mazes at that time were planned by the Italian architect Serlio, one of whose designs is shown in Fig. 81.

The late sixteenth century furnishes abundant evidence of the growing taste for the topiary labyrinth in the architectural works of Androuet du Cerceau, one of the great builders of the French Renaissance and architect to Catherine de Medici. We are bound to say, however,

FIG. 81.—Maze Design by J. Serlio (Sixteenth Century).
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FIG. 81.—Maze Design by J. Serlio (Sixteenth Century).

that the assertion of Horace Walpole, in his "Essay on Modern Gardening," to the effect that in Du Cerceau's works there is scarcely a ground plot without both a round and a square maze, is not borne out by reference to such editions as are generally available.

Du Cerceau's sketches of the mazes at Charleval and in the Palace garden of the Archbishop of Rouen at Gaillon—with modifications necessitated by the extreme roughness of the original blocks—are shown in Figs. 82, 83 and 84.

One of the best-known gardens of the Elizabethan

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period was that made about 1560 for Lord Burleigh, or Burghley, at Theobalds in Hertfordshire. It was described by a contemporary as being "large and square, having all its walls covered with Sillery and a beautiful

FIG. 82.—Maze at Charleval. (After Du Cerceau.)
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FIG. 82.—Maze at Charleval. (After Du Cerceau.)

FIGS. 83 and 84.—Mazes at Gaillon. (After Du Cerceau.)
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FIGS. 83 and 84.—Mazes at Gaillon. (After Du Cerceau.)

jet d’eau in the centre." At the end was a small mount called the Mount of Venus, placed in the midst of a labyrinth, "upon the whole, one of the most beautiful spots in the world." The house and gardens, John Evelyn tells us in his Memoirs, under date April 15, 1643, were "demolish’d by the rebels."

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A plan of this labyrinth is shown in Fig. 85. Theobalds was afterwards transferred by Burleigh's son, the Earl of Salisbury, to King James the First, in exchange for another noble seat in the same county, Hatfield House, still held by the present Marquis of Salisbury.

In the grounds to the rear of the latter mansion is to be seen at the present day one of the finest examples of

FIG. 85.—Maze at Theobalds, Herts. (After Trollope.)
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FIG. 85.—Maze at Theobalds, Herts. (After Trollope.)

a hedge maze, which, although of fairly modern construction, probably replaced an earlier specimen.

Our photograph, Fig. 86 (see Frontispiece), was taken, by kind permission, from the roof of Hatfield House. The hedge is of tall, thick yew throughout, and is perfectly formed, without any of those thin, straggly growths in the lower portion which, by tempting the unscrupulous maze-trotter to burst through them, soon necessitate renewal or unsightly patching.

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The maze is 174. ft. in length and 108 ft. in width, and has two entrances (or exits), one at each end. The

FIG. 87.—Maze in Hatfield House, Herts. Plan (W.H.M.)
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FIG. 87.—Maze in Hatfield House, Herts. Plan (W.H.M.)

basin which formerly occupied the centre was replaced some years ago by a block of yew surmounted by topiary figures. Fig. 87 shows the maze in plan.

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From the beautifully turfed level above the maze, or from the parterre terrace above that, one can overlook the hedges and enjoy, if so inclined, occasional glimpses of ensnared and perplexed visitors.

The type of hedge maze exemplified here, in which the paths are bounded by hedges of uniform thickness, is only one development. Another type arose in the late seventeenth century in which serpentinous footpaths penetrated blocks of shrubs or dense thickets. In some cases limes or hornbeams were "plashed," i.e., their branches were so trained and intertwined as to form a continuous wall of verdure. In other cases the intervals between the paths were filled with loose aggregations of flowering shrubs and evergreens; such an arrangement as this was usually termed a "wilderness." (The term "plashing," by the way, should not be confused with "pleaching," which merely signified the process of ordinary trimming).

In practically all types of maze it became the fashion to relieve the monotony of the walks by placing statues, vases, seats, fountains, and other ornaments at various points. This kind of thing reached a climax of extravagance in the latter part of the seventeenth century, when J. Hardouin-Mansart constructed for Louis XIV the famous labyrinth in the smaller park at Versailles. This labyrinth is described in a book, now very rare, entitled "Labyrinte de Versailles," by C. Perrault, printed at the royal press, Paris, in 1677, and illustrated by Sebastien le Clerc. Our illustrations, Figs. 88, 89, 90 and 91, are selected from the book in question and show respectively the plan of the labyrinth and three of the thirty-nine groups of hydraulic statuary representing the fables of Aesop. At the entrance to the labyrinth were placed symbolical statues of Aesop and Cupid, the latter holding in one hand a ball of thread. Each of the speaking characters represented in the fable groups emitted a jet of water, representing speech, and each group was

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accompanied by an engraved plate displaying more or less appropriate verses by the poet de Benserade.

FIG. 89.—Labyrinth of Versailles. Fable Group: ''The Hare and the Tortoise.'' (Perrault.)
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FIG. 89.—Labyrinth of Versailles. Fable Group: ''The Hare and the Tortoise.'' (Perrault.)

We reproduce le Clerc's engravings of the groups illustrating respectively the fables of "The Hare and

Fig. 88. Labyrinth of Versailles. (Perrault)
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Fig. 88. Labyrinth of Versailles. (Perrault)

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the Tortoise," "The Fox and the Crow," and "The Snake and the Porcupine." The water for all these elaborate

FIG. 90.—Labyrinth of Versailles. Fable Group: ''The Fox and the Crow.'' (Perrault.)
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FIG. 90.—Labyrinth of Versailles. Fable Group: ''The Fox and the Crow.'' (Perrault.)

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waterworks was conveyed from the Seine by a wonderful contrivance called the "Machine de Marli," constructed

FIG. 91.—Labyrinth of Versailles. Fable Group: ''The Snake and the Porcupine.'' (Perrault.)
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FIG. 91.—Labyrinth of Versailles. Fable Group: ''The Snake and the Porcupine.'' (Perrault.)

Fig. 93. Labyrinth at Choisy-le-Roi. (Blondel)
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Fig. 93. Labyrinth at Choisy-le-Roi. (Blondel)

Fig. 94. Labyrinth at Chantilly. (Blondel)
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Fig. 94. Labyrinth at Chantilly. (Blondel)

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Figs. 95 and 96. Maze Designs by Andre Mollet, 1651.
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Figs. 95 and 96. Maze Designs by Andre Mollet, 1651.

by Swalm Renkin between 1675 and 1682. It is said to have cost the equivalent of £8,000,000 and contained fourteen water-wheels driving 253 pumps, some of which worked at a distance of three-quarters of a mile.

The labyrinth was destroyed in 1775 and its site is now occupied by the "Bosquet de la Reine."

The "Dial-garden" at Friar Park, Henley-on-Thames, is laid out on the plan of the Versailles labyrinth, but in place of the statuary groups are thirty-nine sun-dials, each having its motto or epigram. Adjoining it is a maze of original and ingenious design.

The Versailles example was only one of several well-known mazes which existed
in or around Paris at that time. Evelyn, who spent some years in Paris, from 1643 onwards, remarks on the design and trimness of the box-hedge designs in the gardens of the Luxembourg and on the "labyrinth of cypresse" at the Tuileries, no doubt designed by Du Cerceau (Fig. 92). In another account of the Tuileries labyrinth, however, it is described as being made entirely of bent cherry trees. In was ultimately swept away by Le Notre to make room for enlarged parterres.

There is still a labyrinth in the Jardin des Plantes, formerly the Jardin du Roi, but it is of rather feeble design .

Another noted French maze was that constructed by M. Gabriel at Choisy-le-Roi (Fig. 93). One was designed for the gardens of Chantilly by Le Nôtre, but exists to-day only as an engraving on a stone in the park (Fig. 94). Madame de Sévigné, in a letter of June 1, 1689, mentions one at Les Rochers, her seat in Brittany, and we read of one at Sceaux on the occasion of a fête given to Louis XIV and Madame de Maintenon in 1685.

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In most European countries the fashion had obtained a hold either before or during the seventeenth century,

FIGS. 97 and 98.—Mazes by G. A. Boeckler, 1664.
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FIGS. 97 and 98.—Mazes by G. A. Boeckler, 1664.

and we can usually be sure of finding a few drawings of mazes in any horticultural book of that period. Figs. 95 and 96 show two examples given in "Le

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[paragraph continues] Jardin de Plaisir," by André Mollet, the royal gardener at Stockholm, in 1651. Figs. 97 to 106 show some very

FIGS. 99 and 100.—Mazes by G. A. Boeckler, 1664.
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FIGS. 99 and 100.—Mazes by G. A. Boeckler, 1664.

ingenious designs selected from a great number which accompany the drawings of castles and great houses in Germany and elsewhere, contained in the "Architectura curiosa nova" of G. A. Boeckler, 1664.

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One of these (Fig. 105) is rather suggestive of the Saffron Walden turf maze, whilst another (Fig. 101) maze, as well as a "mechanical island" and various other horticultural toys.

FIGS. 101 and 102.—Mazes by G. A. Boeckler, 1664.
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FIGS. 101 and 102.—Mazes by G. A. Boeckler, 1664.

is reminiscent of the Rheims pavement labyrinth. At Enghien, in Belgium, the gardens of the château where the Duke of Arenburg entertained Voltaire contained a

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maze, as well as a "mechanical island" and various other horticultural toys.

FIGS. 103 and 104.—Mazes by G. A. Boeckler, 1664.
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FIGS. 103 and 104.—Mazes by G. A. Boeckler, 1664.

In Spain, as elsewhere, the hedge maze attained great popularity. In the magnificent gardens of the Alcazar at Seville may still be seen the labyrinth laid out in the

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sixteenth century for the Emperor Charles V, with tiled paths and fountains, and adjoining this is a hedge maze

FIGS. 105 and 106.—Mazes by G. A. Boeckler, 1664.
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FIGS. 105 and 106.—Mazes by G. A. Boeckler, 1664.

of roughly hexagonal outline enclosed within an irregular rectangle.

As regards Italy, we read that even the Pope himself,

Fig. 107. Maze at Gunterstein, Holland. (N. Visscher, 1719)
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Fig. 107. Maze at Gunterstein, Holland. (N. Visscher, 1719)

Fig. 108. Gunterstein. Plan of Gardens, showing Maze. (N. Visscher, 1719)
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Fig. 108. Gunterstein. Plan of Gardens, showing Maze. (N. Visscher, 1719)

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Fig. 109. Gardens at Loo, Holland, with Mazes. (W. Harris, 1699.)
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Fig. 109. Gardens at Loo, Holland, with Mazes. (W. Harris, 1699.)

[paragraph continues] Clement X, took pleasure in watching the endeavours of his domestics to extricate themselves from the maze of tall box hedges which adorned his garden at Altieri. Evelyn, in 1646, describing his visit to Vicenza, remarks of the gardens of Count Ulmarini, or Vilmarini, outside the town, "Here is likewise a most inextricable labyrinth."

Sir Philip Skippon, describing his own visit to Vicenza in 1663, refers to the gardens as those of Count Valmarana, and mentions "a labyrinth of myrtle hedges." Skippon also speaks of labyrinths in the gardens of the Duke of Bavaria at Munich.

The Dutch gardeners made a great feature of the doolhof, typical examples being those at the Duke of Portland's château at Sorgvliet, near the Hague, at Gunterstein (Figs. 107 and 108), and at the Palace of Loo, the Dutch home of William and Mary (Fig. 109). Our illustration of the last-named is taken from Dr. W. Harris's book "The King's Palace and Gardens at Loo" (1699). It will be seen that the maze to the left is described as a "wilderness," as is also the structure to the extreme right, but whereas the latter certainly presents little of a labyrinthine appearance, the former is evidently a hedge maze, although perhaps loosely drawn. Harris uses the terms "maze" and "wilderness" interchangeably. He says that the King's labyrinth was formed of clipped hedges with sandy walks between, while the Queen's was decorated with fountains and statues. William the Third exercised his taste for this kind of embellishment also in the grounds of his English palaces. His gardeners, George London and Henry Wise, have left us one which, although of no great complexity, has become world-famous, namely, the specimen which forms part of the "Wilderness" in the gardens of Hampton Court Palace.

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