A short History …

of Treillages, Trellis Works, Arbours, Pergolas & Arches

This story starts with the most famous garden: Paradise. Our first ever garden, created when history itself was born out of light. And what a garden it was. Aptly named ‘The Garden of Eden‘ which is Hebrew for ‘pleasure’, it must have been a garden for all senses, a garden so luxurious and playful that it made for human kind’s first opposite attraction.

Somehow we at Classic Garden Elements are convinced that the Garden of Eden did feature trellisworks and may be arbours and pergolas. But proof thereof is sadly lacking. This could of course be a topic of research. For a gardener or may be for a devout christian. Or possibly for both.

Now what we know is, that the art of trellisworks (treillages), of holding hands below pergolas or exchanging shy kisses in fragrant rose grown arbours dates back as far as Greek and Roman times.

Katherine Swift, the renowned author of the „Morville Hours“ and both a prominent gardener and garden historian will give us a short ‘tour de force’ of the quite delicate history of those fragile structures.


A few thoughts about the history of Pergolas, Arches and Arbours

Morville Hall, UK

Playful movements of light and shade

Pergolas, arbours and arches are a source of some of the most acute of all garden pleasures – the visual contrast of architectural line with twining plant, the gardenly satisfactions of plants trimly tied and trained (or wantonly trailing), the sensous dangling of fruit or flower just within reach – but above all perharps, of the subtle interweaving of interior and exterior, the special feeling afforded only by structures like these of being both inside and outside at the time. 

The experience of walking, sitting beneath such open plant-covered structures is qualitatively different both from the experience of sitting beneath or among trees, and also from the sensation of being within a more solid structure or buildings. Inside a pergola or an arbour we are not removed from the sights and sounds and smells of the garden outside, the playful movement of light and shade, the touch of breeze, the passage of the clouds overhead – indeed we experience all these things with a sort of heightened consciousness, as if the framing device of the structure called our attention to what before was mere vacant air.

Structures inviting our participation

Yet always there is that delicious sense of enclosure. These structures invite our participation in the garden: they beckon us to enter, to stroll, to sit, above all to linger. Time slows to a languorous drawl in structures like these. Sitting in a garden without some feeling of enclosure about one is somehow unsettling and unsatisfactory, like sitting in a room without an open fire: we never stay long, never quite settle down to the book or the unwritten page, which glares whitely at us in the plain light of day.

Similarly, there is never quite the same feeling of intimacy and ease in a stroll à deux out in the open as there is down the long vista of the pergola. And to dine without benefit of the dappled shade provided by pergola or arbour feels somehow perfunctory and spartan, however glorious the weather.



 From King Ashurbanipal to Gertrude Jeckyll

The appeal of such structures is universal and timeless, spanning continents and millenia. And almost from their beginnings in ancient times their frank appeal to our sensuality has been well to the fore. Some of the earliest representations of structures such as these are used to frame scenes of eating and drinking: Greeks and Romans sprawl on their dining couches, the Abyssinian King Ashurbanipal feasts with his queen beneath an arbour of vines, waterside revellers in the Alexandrian resort of Canopus loll beneath ripe grapes and perfumed roses.

In the third century AD the Roman writer Achilles Tatius commented on the effects of light and dappled shade, the delicious interplay of cooleness and warmth on the skin – an effect carefully stage-managed by Gertrude Jekyll sixteen centuries later.

And for centuries their decorative appeal has attracted artists as well as gardeners, exploiting the piquant contrast between architectural elements and the soft twining counterpoint of the plants in art works and artefacts from Greek urns to Pre-Raphaelite fabrics and wallpapers.



Madonna and Child

In medieval Christendom, arbours of all sorts gained an added spiritual dimension as a setting for representations of the Madonna and Child, both bringing the holy figures into the real world in an everyday setting, and in turn enriching the everyday world with the consciousness of the glories of God’s creation. In the symbolism of paintings such as Cranach’s Madonna in the vine arbour, viewers were invited to see the partnership of God and man, paralleld by the partnership of architecture and plant, gardener and nature.



Beauty and Utility

A constant theme is the combination of beauty and utility. With their origins in the ancient cultivation of grapes, such structures were soon adopted as supports for a variety of other climbing plants. Vines and roses were a common combination from ancient times, and many a modern structure has reclaimed for us the decorative possibilities of fruits and climbing vegetables as well as flowers. But beyond their merely horticultural role, pergola-like structures in particular have always fullfilled an important circulatory function in linking (or sometimes separating) the different parts of a site, whether medieval European monastery or castle with its covered walks linking different buildings, Chinese garden with its elaborate open-sided lang, or twentieth-century western compartmentalised garden with its pergola or arch pointing the way from one garden ‘room’ to another.


Essays in mutability
Powerful feelings of transitoriness

Some of those structures are closer to solid garden buildings, where we find an interior unvaryingly the same within a structure built to last: damp-proofed, roofed over, sometimes walled in. But the pergolas, arbours and arches of which we talk here all convey powerful feelings of transitoriness, movement, a sense of the fleeting moment.

In certain cultures the plants may be chosen to heighten that sense of transience, as in the traditional Japanese use of wisteria with its fragile fleeting blossoms so transparently at the mercy of frost and rain, tossed by every gust of wind.

Elsewhere plants have been chosen in an attempt to deny that essential fact, as in the seventeenth-century European fashion for tunnels and arbours made from clipped hornbeam – the plant becoming the architecture while the architecture, in the form of ever more fanciful trelliswork, stood alone as an ornament in itself.



In contemporary western usage designers have continued to play with ideas of time by making pergolas and arbours on the one hand from dynamic, sustainable structures of living wood such as willow, and on the other hand from materials such as stainless steel, left un-planted.

Open plant-covered structures in contrast respond to the time and the season like the garden itself, the plants burgeoning into leaf, flower and fruit before fading or lapsing back into winter sleep, the structures themselves gently decaying. They are in themselves little essays in mutability.



History and Aging in Dignity
a post scriptum by
Classic Garden Elements

With the passing of seasons, a layer of pollen and algae gathers on the surface of our ‘Classic Garden Elements’ structures, so that over the years, indeed decades, an unusually attractive patina is formed. The Arches, Pergolas, Treillages, Arbours and Pillars made by Classic Garden Elements such weather and age with a certain dignity inherent to Greek and Roman ruins while their inner stability is guaranteed by hot-dip galvanised solid steel.

Andrew Marvell (1621-78)

Annihilating all that’s made
To a green Thought in a green Shade




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