Mazes and Labyriths, by W. H. Matthews, , at sacred-texts.com
TOWARDS the end of the eighteenth century the taste for mazes in private gardens had to some extent declined, but as an adjunct to places of public amusement the topiary labyrinth was still in great demand.
"Pleasure gardens" of the Ranelagh and Vauxhall type were then greatly in vogue, not only in the metropolis but in most of the fashionable health resorts, and, although it is only in comparatively few cases that we have definite records of their having possessed a maze, there is no doubt that very many were in existence, though probably most have since disappeared.
A favourite resort with dwellers in the north of London, up to about a century ago, was White Conduit House, in Islington, and here a maze formed one of the principal attractions.
In Harrow Road, N.W., No. 6 Chichester Place marks the site of a minor public garden called "The Maze," which flourished up to about the middle of last century.
Another northern pleasure garden which is recorded as possessing a maze was "New Georgia," in Turners Wood, near the Spaniards, Hampstead.
South of the Thames the celebrated Beulah Spa had
a maze, which, together with that at Hampton Court, is referred to by Dickens in his "Sketches by Boz."
Other well-known "tea-garden" mazes are those at the Crystal Palace and at the Rosherville Gardens, Gravesend.
A maze was erected at the request of the Prince Consort, in or about the year 1862, in the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society at South Kensington. It was designed by Lieut. W. H. Nesfield, R.N., who relinquished a naval career to become a very successful gardener. Fig. 120 shows the plan of this maze as given in the R.H.S. official guide to the gardens in 1864. A statue of Galatea adorned the "goal."
This plan differs in some respects from Nesfield's original design, which was slightly simpler and provided for a central fountain and basin. The figure which illustrates the "Britannica" article—and which has been copied into a popular book on puzzles, accompanied by the remark that it is "a feeble thing"—unfortunately departs from the official plan in certain small but import-ant details; it allows of an almost direct passage from a third external opening to the circular goal. The maze ultimately went to ruin and its site has long been built upon.
The maze in the beautiful little gardens at Saffron Walden which were presented to the public nearly a century ago by Mr. L. Fry, M.P., and are known as Bridge End Gardens, is still in excellent condition, although suffering in places from the illicit short-cuts made by impatient visitors. It is locally believed to be a replica of that at Hampton Court, but is of very different plan and is, in fact, much more elaborate. Our photographs, Figs. 121 and 122, were taken from the pulpit-like erection at one end of the central enclosure, looking roughly towards the south and the north respectively.
It will be noticed that a person standing on the erection is precluded from mapping out the maze therefrom,
by reason of the tall topiary upgrowths at various points, designed, no doubt, with this object. This maze is situated within a few hundred yards of the turf maze which we noticed in a previous chapter.
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FIG. 120.—Maze by W. H. Nesfield, in R.H.S. Gardens, South Kensington, circ. 1862. (From R.H.S. Guide.)
Another modern hedge maze in the same county is that in the grounds of Mistley Place, Manningtree, the residence of E. M. Jackson, Esq., M.A., who has kindly furnished the writer with some details concerning it.
The maze was planted about fifty years ago, but unfortunately the choice of material was not of the most judicious, for, while the major portion is of beech, young oaks were planted in the outer circle and these have now grown up into large trees, overshadowing and ruining the neighbouring portions of the hedge, so that it is now difficult to trace the plan. Only the inner circles remain complete.
In the adjacent county of Suffolk there is another maze of about the same age but of very different pattern, at Somerleyton Hall, the seat of Lord Somerleyton (Fig. 123). The hedges in this case are of yew and are of great thickness, about six or seven feet in height. At the points marked "A" are situated two beautiful golden Irish yews. Clipped yews provide interesting variety at the points marked "B," and a little pagoda crowns the central knoll, approached by grassy ramps.
There is a hexagonal maze, of some complexity, in the splendid gardens of the Hon. J. Egerton Warburton at Arley Hall, Cheshire. It is formed of lime trees, planted about half a century ago.
We may also mention one, of circular and rather simple though distinctive design, at Belton House, the residence of Earl Brownlow, near Grantham, Lincolnshire.
In Gloucestershire there is one in the grounds of Sudeley Castle, the home of H. D. Brocklehurst, Esq., J.P., where, according to Kelly's county directory, "the old pleasaunce, with its paths and fountain, was discovered in 18 so and now forms part of the garden."
In Nottinghamshire there is one, planted by Colonel Thos. Coke in the ’fifties, at Debdale Hall, Mansfield Woodhouse (F. N. Ellis, Esq., J.P.).
Mr. W. W. Rouse Ball, in his "Mathematical Recreations and Essays," gives a drawing of an elaborate maze which he has erected in his own garden, presumably at Cambridge.
Possibly there are many others in the seclusion of
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Fig 121. Maze in Bridge End Gardens, Saffron Walden, looking South. [Photo: W.H.M.]
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Fig. 122. Maze in Bridge End Gardens, Saffron Walden, looking North. [Photo: W.H.M.]
large country gardens, but, as the owners of such contrivances are inclined to consider them as relics of a bygone and discredited fashion, it is only by chance or by individual enquiries that information concerning them can be obtained, and it is of course impracticable
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FIG. 123.—Maze at Somerleyton Hall, Suffolk. (W. H. M., from sketch by G. F. G.)
to take an unofficial census on such a matter. It may be taken as probable, however, that all the most notable examples have been enumerated above.
In continental countries the occurrence of mazes is as sporadic as at home. There are said to be some excellent specimens in the neighbourhood of Barcelona, fragrant, aromatic, and flowering shrubs being a characteristic feature of their composition.
As regards Italy, Mr. Inigo Triggs, in his description of the Castellezo dei Arconati, near Milan ("The Art of Garden Design in Italy"), mentions two "labyrinths," one of which is an extensive work of closely cut horn-beam, partly laid out as a circular maze, whilst the other has a number of small enclosures and alcoves with fountains.
In France well-known mazes are those at the Priory of St. Michel, Toul, called la Tour du Diable, and at the Abbaye aux Dames, Caen, as well as the rather poor specimen at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, to which we have already alluded.
A description of the popular Tivoli Gardens in Vienna, towards the close of the last century, refers to a labyrinth situated below a terrace from which spectators could observe the alarms and excursions of the enmeshed maze-trotters.
In the United States, where very few of the embellishments of bygone Europe have failed to achieve reproduction, there is a replica, with some slight modifications, of the Hampton Court maze. This is situated at Waltham, Massachusetts, on the property of Miss Cornelia Warren. It was planted in 1896, and is formed of thick hedges of arbor vitae, about a thousand shrubs being employed. The plan follows that of its original model, but the sharp rear angles of the Hampton Court design are replaced by rounded curves, and the hedges adjacent to the central space, which is also rounded, are correspondingly modified.
There is a pond at the centre and a rustic rostrum stands before the entrance. The shortest route to the centre is said to be about one-fifth of a mile in length and the total length of the paths about one-third of a mile.
A large hedge maze is also to be found at a place called Cedar Hill—and no doubt there are many others.
The decline in favour of the maze amongst gardeners of repute during the latter part of the eighteenth century
is possibly to be accounted for in great part as the natural revulsion from the surfeit of elaborate designs produced in the preceding periods.
"In designing a garden," wrote Lord Kames (Henry Home), "everything trivial or whimsical ought to be avoided. Is a labyrinth therefore to be justified? It is a mere conceit, like that of composing verses in the shape of an axe or an egg: the walks and hedges may be agree able, but in the form of a labyrinth they serve to no end but to puzzle; a riddle is a conceit not so mean, because the solution is a proof of sagacity, which affords no aid to tracing a labyrinth."
This was in his "Elements of Criticism," a work of which Dr. Johnson remarked: "Sir, this book is a pretty essay and deserves to be held in some estimation, though much of it is chimerical." The idea that sagacity affords no aid in tracing a labyrinth is certainly chimerical, as we shall see, but persons who incline to austerity in art will have little hesitation in agreeing with the other remarks of Lord Kames, even where, further on, he says: "The gardens of Versailles, executed with boundless expense by the best artists of the age, are a lasting monument of a taste the most depraved." Since Lord Kames's time, however, the gardens of Versailles have been subjected to considerable alteration, and at the present day form one of the greatest charms of the environs of Paris.
The contemporary French poet Delille, author of "Les Jardins, ou l’Art d’embellir les Paysages," was voicing the feelings of the times when he wrote:
[paragraph continues] From that time onwards the hedge maze has been the object of much condemnatory criticism and contemptuous reference, sometimes grounded on a certain amount of reason, but often enough of the follow-my-leader type.
Even at the present time there are not wanting gardeners of influence who would view with equanimity the entire disappearance of this convoluted mass of ever-greens which dares to offer its antiquated charms in competition with their latest floricultural triumphs.
And cannot one sympathise to some extent with their feelings in the matter? When one's whole career has been devoted to the creation of new forms of plant life or the improvement of existing forms, achievements which entail prolonged scientific training and patient experimenting, constant vigilance and careful selection of favourable variations, it must be rather galling to be asked to construct and maintain a meandering row of commonplace evergreens. One can imagine the case to be somewhat parallel to that of a highly trained musician who has just delivered himself of a great sonata and is asked by a member of his audience for "a descriptive battle-march!"
Mr. W. Robinson had perhaps experiences of this kind in mind when he wrote his observations about mazes in his well-known handbook, "The English Flower Garden." "The Maze," he says, is "one of the notions about gardening which arose when people had very little idea of the dignity and infinite beauty of the garden flora as we now know it." In the next sentence he refers to mazes as "ugly frivolities." They should be left, he says, "for the most part to places of the public tea-garden kind." Whatever we may think of the justice of these remarks, we must admit that there is some force in his objection that "one of its drawbacks is the death and distortion of the evergreens that go to form its close lines, owing to the frequent clipping; if clipping be neglected
the end is still worse, and the whole thing is soon ready for the fire."
A figure of a maze accompanies this criticism, but it can hardly be meant to typify the usual conception of a hedge maze, as it has the appearance of a seventeenth-century design, possibly intended for a floral labyrinth, for, apart from a few ornamental excrescences, it is entirely unicursal.
Although the strictures we have quoted would probably receive hearty support from a large proportion of modern gardeners, the maze is still not without its champions.
In Miss Madeline Agar's very practical book on "Garden Design," for example, it is treated as a wholly legitimate embellishment for large gardens, and the fact of its disfavour amongst present-day horticulturists is attributed to lack of patience.
A highly original design, with provision for seats, sundials, and statues, is likewise given, but it must be confessed that it conveys a flattering assumption of opulence on the part of the reader, for it certainly does not err on the side of simplicity.
Let us admit at once that, as a favourite of fashion, the maze has long since had its day. In every generation the craving is for novelty, for new forms of expression in all branches of art. Like every other defunct mode, the topiary labyrinth is liable to temporary revivals by lovers of the antique, but there is little reason to hope or to fear that it will ever again secure a position of any dominance in the affections of the gardener. The labour involved in its proper maintenance is alone a sufficient guarantee against that. The hedges require very frequent trimming, and sometimes partial renewal, the latter especially in those cases where unscrupulous visitors are not prevented, by barbed wire or other means, from short-circuiting the convolutions. The paths, too, of which there may be over half a mile, want regular attention
unless we are content to be constantly reminded of Tom Moore's punning conundrum:
Deciduous plants such as hornbeam and lime give the maze a sorry appearance during the leafless months of the year, whilst the slower-growing conifers, yew and cypress, besides being expensive, necessitate a long waiting period before the hedges attain a presentable height and thickness. Box harbours slugs; juniper, holly, and the various thorn-bushes present inhospitable asperities which outweigh their other merits—in short, we may be certain that whatever material be suggested for the construction of a maze there will be no lack of objections wherewith the gardener may buttress his prejudice against the contrivance in any shape or form.
On the other hand, the maze has its own, almost indefinable, charms, and we need hardly tremble for its total extinction until we cease to bear children, even if we dismiss as decadent sentimentality that romantic instinct of which some of us cannot quite rid ourselves in maturer years.