by Ian Duggan

Topiary skill… is less common in New Zealand than in older countries, for most people hold that a tree is a thing to be burnt and not clipped into a semblance of a bird, a beast or a politician [Auckland Star, 1932].[i]

“Quaint garden…”, Taranaki Daily News, 18 May 1931, P 5 (no known copyright restrictions)

Topiary – the art of cutting hedges and trees into ornamental shapes resembling animals, decorative objects and geometric forms – was never widely practiced in New Zealand, with few local examples mentioned in our newspapers up to the 1950s. However, there is the odd exception, such as this one from Onehunga, Auckland, in 1932:

“There is a very quaint instance in a garden facing the Esplanade, the waterfront road at Onehunga. On a grassed terrace there is a complete set of furniture for a tea party of three. The table is a Pinus insignis [now Pinus radiata] with its branches flattened and trimmed flat to represent the round top. The chairs, one at each side and one at the back farthest from the road, are ingeniously “built” out of Elaeagnus. The bare stalks represent the legs, and the leafy branches have been coaxed into the exact shape of seat and back, with an inviting hollow for the shoulders. The suite would have delighted Peter Pan and Wendy, and it is more than probable that if there are any fairies in the borough of Onehunga they must haunt the spot on moonlight nights and hold wonderful banquets there”.[ii]

Despite this article appearing in six newspapers, scattered between Auckland and Christchurch, this garden never received a second story.

The most widely reported topiary gardens in local newspapers were those of Mr John Cooper (b.1863; d.1942) of Newman, a small settlement located 4 km north of Eketāhuna in the Wairarapa region, which were often accompanied with photos. This garden, on the route used by travellers between Wellington and Wairarapa[iii], obtained a good amount of coverage through the early 1930s, and was said by one newspaper report to have been “world famous”. [iv]

In 1931, for example, the Manawatu Times reported: “This unusual sight is to be found in the garden of Mr. J. Cooper, at Newman, Eketahuna. Macrocarpa hedges, kept closely clipped, appear in the guise of tables, chairs, animals, and haystacks, sheep, deer, and birds are to be found on the lawns”.[v]

“An unusual garden at Newman…”, Evening Post, 20 December 1933, P 19 (no known copyright restrictions)

Similarly, the Dominion in 1934 notes: “A garden in the ancient topiary style is one of the outstanding sights between Eketahuna and Pahiatua. The gardener, who skilfully clips his conifers to the shapes of tables, chairs and animals, has spent many years developing his effects.”.[vi]

Unsurprisingly, the gardens were quoted as being “the source of considerable interest owing to the unusual shapes into which various bushes and shrubs have been trimmed”.[vii] Among the most celebrated visitors was Lady Bledisloe, the wife of the Governor-General.[viii]

John Cooper was born in Mākara, west of Wellington, in 1863. He was the son of Mr William Cooper, who – it was reported in John Cooper’s obituary – “arrived in New Zealand in 1856 from St. Helena, where he was one of Napoleon’s guards, being an officer in the British Imperial Army”.[ix] At least, that is how the story went. As descendent Paul McDonald points out, William wasn’t even born until after Napoleon had died, with the family narrative (including his rank of officer) likely all part of a fabrication formulated to obscure William’s wife Eliza’s African ancestry.

John Cooper’s early life was spent bush-felling in the Mākara, Wairarapa and Bush districts, and he followed in his fathers military footsteps, when at 17 he was on active service at the colonial attack on Parihaka, and later became a member of the Eketāhuna Mounted Rifles.  Cooper moved to his famous garden site around the time of his 1893 marriage to Miss Charlotte Dowsett, of Newman.

New Zealand Herald, 16 February 1934, P 8 (no known copyright restrictions)

During his time in Newman, John took an active interest in the affairs of the district, including being a director of the local School Board, a member of the Domain Board, and he served as a Sunday School teacher at the local Methodist Church for some period. His topiary gardens were a retirement project, after he stood back from active farming in 1920.[x] Most of his attention to the gardens followed the death of his wife, Charlotte, in 1931.[xi]

Cooper’s time at Newman came to an end in 1938, when it was reported he would be leaving to take up residence at Rotorua.[xii] In a 2004 book on his gardens, author Margaret Lucas noted that the motivation behind the move was that if his topiary gardens were a success in such an off-the-beaten-track location, it was sure to do well in a major tourist centre.[xiii]

To Malfroy Road in Rotorua, he was accompanied by his youngest son, Len, and Len’s wife Vera. It was reported that Cooper’s intention was to transplant his topiary from Newman to Rotorua. Indeed, in the June 1939 issue of the Australian magazine ‘Pix’, Len was featured with topiary in the Rotorua garden, including a topiary swan and wheelbarrow – just three months after being planted – which featured alongside examples of topiary gardens from Australia, the United States and The Netherlands.[xiv] However, Lucas reports that most of the plants had died en route.[xv] Nevertheless, the Rotorua experience was not to last long. Following the outbreak of World War II, Len was required back on the farm, and the Rotorua garden was abandoned.[xvi]

Advertisement, New Zealand Herald, 25 October 1940, P 11

John Cooper died in a private hospital in Pahiatua in August 1942. At the time of his death, very little apparently remained of the topiary at Newman, besides a suite of furniture deemed too large to have been transplanted to Rotorua; this was trimmed until the Cooper farm was sold in 1960.[xvii] Following a number of years of abandonment, the house was restored in the 1970s, and named ‘Glendon’. The story of its restoration can be found in the book “Glendon: Topiary & Tranquillity, A History of Two Gardens”, by Margaret Lucas.[xviii]


[i] The Passing Show, Auckland Star, 25 February 1932, P 6

[ii] Growing Furniture, Auckland Star, 30 August 1932, P 6

[iii] Auckland Star, 9 April 1935, P 5

[iv] Manawatu Standard, 25 August 1942, P 2

[v] Quaint Garden, Manawatu Times, 15 May 1931, P 8

[vi] Dominion, 15 May 1934, P 7

[vii] New Zealand Herald, 16 February 1934, P 8

[viii] John Cooper and Lady Bledisloe standing alongside topiary, circa 1930s, Masterton District Council.

[ix] Manawatu Standard, 25 August 1942, P 2

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Obituary. Mrs John Cooper, Pahiatua Herald, 29 September 1931, P 7

[xii] Personal, Pahiatua Herald, 10 June 1938, P 4

[xiii] Lucas, Margaret (2004) Glendon: Topiary & Tranquility: A history of two gardens, Heritage Press Ltd, Palmerston North, NZ

[xiv] Sculptor’s Art in Living Shrubs, Pix. (Australia), v. 4, no. 1, 1 July 1939, pp 46-47

[xv] Lucas, Margaret (2004) Glendon: Topiary & Tranquility: A history of two gardens, Heritage Press Ltd, Palmerston North, NZ

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

One thought on “John Cooper’s “World Famous” Topiary Gardens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s