Treillage is just a posh [and French] word for trellis! Its one of the oldest forms of garden structure and in medieval and Tudor times was often called ‘carpentry work’. Although the idea of trelliswork sounds simple and rustic, in its Baroque heyday it could be immensely sophisticated and complex.
Later it was generally superseded by either a return to more rustic woodwork for garden structures or, for more elaborate work, by wrought and cast iron. Read on to find out more about this art form which must be due for a revival!
For once the taxonomy of what I’m talking about is simple. The word ‘trellis’ came into Middle English from old French, which itself is derived from the Latin tri for 3 and licium meaning threads. It refers to one of the oldest and longest-lasting man-made garden features – a system of plant supports that often provided shading and seclusion for a seat or walkway.
Mediaeval manuscript illustrations often show herbers [which later were sometimes called arbours or bowers] made up of simple trelliswork, often also supporting climbing plants. Apart from the obvious benefits of providing somewhere nice to sit a shady arbour would have provided privacy that would not have been available anywhere else.
There are some good reconstructions of authentically constructed and planted mediaeval gardens which feature arbours and tunnels of this kind. The earliest example, opened in 1986, is Queen Eleanor’s Garden, next to the medieval Great Hall in Winchester, is a re-creation, by Dr Sylvia Landsberg, of an enclosed medieval garden and is named after Queen Eleanor of Provence and her daughter-in-law Queen Eleanor of Castile, who would have walked there and used it as their private retreat. For more information see:
There is also, according to Alan Titchmarsh, “a stunning example of a recreated medieval garden” around the 13thc Prebendal Manor at Nassington in Northants. (Royal Gardeners, 2003). This includes a trellis garden complete with a tunnel arbour. More information can be found at:
Early texts often refer to anything more complex than these sorts of rustic support system as ‘carpentry work’ and by the 15th century this was becoming more and more sophisticated, often being used to form tunnels or completely shaded areas to walk through. By the later 17thc, however, the term treillage had begun to refer to a slightly wider range of things. Guy Miege’s A Dictionary of Barbarous French published in 1679 defines treillage as “grates, cross-bars, latticework; arbors; a railing.”
Of course these structures were both fragile and short-lived especially when compared with brick or stone structures. They required constant maintenance because if neglected they were soon victims of the elements. So it is unsurprising that there are no surviving examples and that we have to rely on contemporary documentary and visual evidence. The builders were probably carpenters, nameless except in the rare cases where a payment is recorded in financial accounts.
Very elaborate designs – an amazing blend of art and highly skilled craft – were developed in France and Italy by the mid-16thc. Recent research by Natsumi Nonaka suggests that the distinction between the aesthetic and the utilitarian, and between art and craft was indistinct at this time. Looking at French and Italian examples of tunnels and pergolas she shows how these structures developed from a basic functional device for the support of climbing plants, but gradually became an object to be admired in its own right.
Its basic form was a barrel-vaulted gallery made of jointed timber. Many of its ornamental details and structural principles were borrowed from stone architecture. Some had window-like openings along the sides allowing for a view. In the early days much of its ornamental value derived from the plants that grew on it such as ivy, vine, roses, and jasmine, but in later examples less was covered, there was more ornamentation – such as statuary used for decorative uprights – so that the structure itself became at least as important as the planting.
In French gardens the treillage was usually placed on or around the edge of an area as a covered promenade. In Italian gardens, however, treillage pergolas were usually arranged along the axial paths : one straight pergola along the central axis, or a cruciform pergola, with a domed pavilion at the crossing, and four arms along the intersecting longitudinal and transverse axes. There is a considerable resemblance to ecclesiastical architecture in such a design, and Nonaka suggests that the layout “may have been intended as a kind of sanctuary of nature, where the celebration of nature and the individual interaction with it would become possible.” To read her full conference paper go to:
Such elaborate masterpieces were seen by early English travellers and were then, of course, copied back at home. Hampton Court, Thornbury in Gloucestershire, and Theobalds all had similar trellis galleries. But we can see in Thomas Hill’s gardening books published in the later 16thc the much more usual and rustic kinds of trellis work that would have been employed in most gardens. [For more on Hill’s books see my Jan 2015 post ]
Francis Bacon’s ideal garden employs carpentry work as one of its main features. In his great essay “On Gardens” of 1625 he suggested planting “a covert alley, upon carpenter’s work, about twelve foot in height, by which you may go in shade into the garden”.
The main garden was then to be “encompassed on all four sides with a stately arched hedge; the arches to be upon pillars of carpenter’s work, of some ten foot high and six foot broad: and the spaces between of the same dimension with the breadth of the arch. Over the arches let there be an entire hedge of some four foot high, framed also upon carpenter’s work; and upon the upper hedge, over every arch, a little turret with a belly, enough to receive a cage of birds; and over every space, between arches, some other little figure, with broad plates of round colour’d glass, gilt, for the sun to play upon. But this hedge I intend to be raised upon a bank, not steep, but gently slope, of some six foot, set all with flowers.”
The intricate work that Bacon described and which can be seen in the background of the portrait of William Style, went out of fashion in England during the course of 17th-century. John James in his translation of Dezallier’s The Theory and Practice of Gardening  Explains why: ” ‘Tis not so much the fashion at present, to make Porticos, Arbours, and Cabinets of Lattice-work, in gardens yet they ought still to be made in some places; and ’tis certain, these Pieces of Architecture, well disposed, have something in them very beautiful and magnificent; they raise and improve the natural Beauty of Gardens extremely; but as they are very chargeable to make and keep up, and continually liable to decay, most People are out of Conceit with them.” [Part 1 Ch.8, p.70)
The fact that treillage was “chargeable” didn’t stop it flourishing in the grand gardens of France long after it had ceased being fashionable in Britain. Le Nôtre and other landscape architects like him relied heavily on it to bring a sense of grandeur to the garden. While it would have taken years for hedges and topiaries to grow to full maturity, treillage brought instant architecture, impressive scale and elegant formality to a newly built landscape.
There is an interesting account of private gardens in Paris that were visited in 1698 by Martin Lister, the well-connected naturalist and physician, which shows how widespread the use of extensive and expensive treillage was, and how it was usually a particular shade of green.
At the garden of D’Aumont “the Treillage, at the upper end of the Garden, was very well adorned with Gilding, and had in the middle a Pavillon, in which was an old Roman Statue of a young Man, very well preserved…This Treillage is performed with that variety of Ornaments, that it resembles Filegreen [ filigree] Work, and is large…The Painting of these Works in green is not well performed in all places alike; it is either too yellow, or of a sad dirty green, or Sea green; few have hit the right Grass green colour. To do it well, it is to be primed in yellow, and then to be covered with Vert de Montagne or Lapis Armeniacus; of which last colour we have plenty in England about Maulhamin Craven in Yorkeshire.”
In another garden”the Treillage Walk or Arbor at the upper end is very fine, 70 Paces long, and 8 broad, hath 3 Pavillons all open at the top. It is all of Iron, painted green, and cost 15000 Livers.” At a third “The Trellage in this Garden was most admirable in the fashion of a Triumphal Arch; half of it was an Aviarie, with a Fountain in it, well stor’d with Birds.” Elsewhere “there were several pieces of Trellage; that at the upper end was very noble, and cost 10000 Livres; another piece of it cost 6000. But I saw a small one all of Iron-leaves painted green, the only one of the Kind. Here also were great Vasa’s of Trelliage upon Pedestals.” Finally The best Piece of Treillage of Iron Bars and Wood intermixt, is that in the Garden of feu Mons. Louvois. And this is one of the neatest Gardens in Paris. The whole upper end is adorned with a noble Treillage after the manner of a Triumphal Arch; it cost a great Sum of Money: There are 4 Statues disposed on Pedestals under it, which have a good effect; these are Antique, rarely good.”
Wondering why it was so popular, despite being so expensive Lister concluded that “the great benefit of Treillage in Cities, [is] that besides the beauty of it to the Eye, it takes away and hides the ill prospect of the Neighbouring Houses.”
Given its popularity it seems strange therefore that although treillage gets mentioned in many books the first devoted to the subject, Andre Roubo’s L’Art du treillageur, ou menuiserie des jardins, was not publihsed until 1769
It contains a series of plates showing the construction of the various elements of a treillage structure, and from the sheer number of decorative ornaments and styles one can see the almost infinite variety that it was possible to play on a basic theme. The rest of Roubo’s illustrations can be found at:
Of course, one way round the problem of constant maintenance of wooden treillage was, as shown in the quotes from Martin Lister above, to switch the construction material to wrought iron. And my next post will be about the best surviving example of that in Britain.