Given that my garden is bordered by a high brick wall–the backside of Hamilton Hall–someone in its past began training a pair of yews to grow up alongside it espalier-style. I’m grateful that this happened. I’m not a big yew fan, but the espaliered yews soften the edges of the wall and are relatively low-maintenance. We normally trim them once a year, and the rest of the year (all seasons) they look pretty good. Obviously their design is quite informal; a couple of years ago while Hamilton Hall was getting a new roof a cornerstone fell on the top one (narrowly avoiding me, actually), taking out several branches, so they don’t quite match.
Espalier techniques go back several centuries, maybe even to the Romans. I’ve read that they were utilized in the enclosed gardens of the medieval era, which makes perfect sense but is apparently not true. The keeper of the gardens at the Cloisters Museum maintains that espalier was a Renaissance invention (or revival), which makes even more sense given the contemporary quest for the mastery of nature. With espalier, you are literally bending nature to your will, and it is also a perfect combination of aesthetics and practicality. In the Renaissance and after, fruit trees were the primary objects of the technique, but today you see all sorts of trained shrubs, including yews.
Below is an illustration of espalier from a late seventeenth-century Dutch gardening manual in the collection of the New York Public Library, and two photographs of George Washington’s garden at Mt. Vernon; apparently our first president had a preference for “live fences”, and trained trees for walls and borders. Finally, Charlotte Moss‘s “Espalier” china pattern for Pickard.