The "Block" Labyrinth and its Variations

The block labyrinth is the next to be considered in my series of articles on mazes. They were much more rare than either hedge or turf mazes, but there were a few built in England, some of which survived, barely, into the Regency. There were also a few variations on the block labyrinth form after it crossed the Channel to England. All of these garden features were a novelty, due to their rarity, but they would have been popular with lovers and courting couples, as they had the same high "walls" and winding paths of a mature hedge maze.

A meander though the history of the garden block labyrinth …

The essential design of a block labyrinth was a large block of young trees and sturdy shrubbery through which paths and open areas were cut. In most cases, the paths were actually laid out and then all of the trees and shrubs were planted to fill in the non-path areas. It was much more similar to a wilderness with an irregular unicursal path cut through it than it was to its successor, the hedge maze. The block labyrinth type of maze had been popular in France, Holland and England, beginning in the latter part of the seventeenth century.

Though not the first, one of the most complex and well-known of all the block labyrinths was constructed in a very special garden, the smaller park on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. This most unique and famous block labyrinth was the one which Louis XIV directed his landscape architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, to design and build for the edification of his son, the young Dauphin, in 1664.

This masterful work of landscape architecture contained thirty-nine groups of statuary, most with a fountain, depicting various vignettes from the popular Aesop’s Fables. A plaque with the text of the fable was placed near each group. They were designed not only to teach the young Dauphin to read, but also to absorb the moral lessons incorporated in the tales. All of the characters in any of the statuary groups which appeared to be speaking would emit a stream of water from their mouths, an indication of their speech.

This Aesop’s fables labyrinth was so popular, not only with the young Dauphin, but with the public, that is, the nobility and gentry who were allowed to visit the garden, that a guidebook was published which ran to several editions and was eventually translated into English in 1768. Both the French and the English editions were lavishly illustrated with numerous engravings of the many sculpture groups in the labyrinth. The small, pocket-sized books were richly bound in red morocco leather with stamped gilt decoration. A number of these volumes were purchased in Britain, primarily by collectors of fine books, devotees of Aesop’s fables and those interested in garden design.

The block labyrinth at Versailles was destroyed in 1778, at the order of Louis XVI, as it was then considered out-of-date and unfashionable. Ironically, it was replaced by what was considered to be the more classical Bosquet de la Reine, essentially a grove of trees laid out in the style of an English garden. This was later the site of an incident supposedly involving Queen Marie Antoinette which played a role in inciting the French Revolution. After its destruction, the guidebook of the vanished Versailles labyrinth, both the French and English editions, increased in value as desirable collector’s items in England, even during the Regency. In fact, the very few labyrinth guidebooks still in existence in modern times are quite highly prized by collectors.

Block labyrinths were occassionally built in England, a number of them to the designs of the English architect and garden designer, Batty Langley. He included a number of block labyrinth designs in his book, New Principles of Gardening:  or, the Laying out and Planting Parterres, Groves, Wildernesses, Labyrinths, Avenues, Parks, &c. after a more Grand and Rural Manner, than has been Done before, published in 1728. Though Langley spent his life in England, he was aware of the famous block labyrinth through the French version of the guidebook which was available in England, as well as other drawings and plans of the gardens of Versailles. He based his own block labyrinth designs on that one, though he noted in his book that he considered his labyrinth plans to be "improvements" of Hardouin-Mansart’s work for Louis XIV’s labyrinth.

A fairly large block labyrinth was built on the grounds of Trinity College, Oxford, in the 1680s. This one was constructed too early to have been built to the designs of Batty Langley, who was born in the 1690s. The Trinity College labyrinth may have been one of the first block labyrinths constructed in England, when the fashion for them had just crossed the Channel from France and Holland. It was certainly not as complex as the labyrinth at Versailles, nor those built at some of the Dutch royal estates, but it still offered amusement to many at Oxford for more than one hundred and twenty-five years. Sadly, though it was one of the oldest and most unique block labyrinths in England, it was completely torn out in 1813.

True block labyrinths would have been built in England from the last third of the seventeenth century through the middle of the eighteenth century. Some would have been constructed based on designs obtained directly from Europe, the later ones may have been based on the published designs of Batty Langley. Similar garden creations would have continued to appear though the end of the eighteenth century, but by then they might have been called "wildernesses," "wood walks," "American gardens" or simply "mazes," just to add to the confusion.

Regardless of the label applied to them, these garden features would have consisted of a mix of trees and shrubberies planted in patterns which their designers believed emulated untouched nature. A block labyrinth might be restricted to just a few species of plants for a more uniform appearance, while wildernesses and wood walks would incorporate more plant varieties, especially flowering plants. "American gardens" would usually showcase plant species imported from North America, though these would be mixed with indigenous British plants to fill out the garden. In most cases, only the very wealthy could afford an "American garden," as the cost of importing plants from North America was quite high. However, those who had friends among the officers of either the Royal Navy or the merchant marine might prevail upon their contacts to bring plants home to them from their travels. In such cases, even an avid gardener of lesser means might be able to have their own "American garden."

By the first quarter of the eighteenth century, particularly in England, straight paths in gardens were abhorred as unnatural. Therefore, the paths in later block labyrinths, or their variations, tended to be quite serpentine as they meandered from one open area to another among the plantings. Some might have unicursal paths, that is no dead-end branches, others might be slightly multicursal, that is, there would be a few branching paths which lead to an open cul-de-sac where visitors might find seating, garden sculpture, a fountain, or some combination of those popular garden furnishings, where they might take their ease and enjoy nature. Or each other, should they be so inclined.

Block labyrinths, and their variations, had fallen out of favor toward the end of the eighteenth century and some were destroyed even before the Regency began. Certainly the great block labyrinth of Aesop’s fables at Versailles was long gone. But there would have been many people still alive during the Regency who would have seen it on a visit to Versailles in their youth. In addition, copies of the elegant red-bound guidebook were still in circulation and were sought-after collector’s items. The large block labyrinth on the grounds of Trinity College, at Oxford, survived into the Regency, only to be destroyed in 1813. But across England, and even in Scotland and Ireland, there may have been any number of country estate gardens in which might have been found a block labyrinth, a wilderness, a wood walk or even an American garden.

Regency visitors to these fantastical garden creations would have felt as though they were strolling through nature, surrounded by its beauty and its hazards. For one of the greatest attractions of these labyrinths was the delicious risk of getting lost along its many winding paths. Unlike the hedge maze, for which there was a reliable formula a visitor could use find the exit, there was no such formula for a block labyrinth. Of course, if one was with a paramour, one might not be in any hurry to find one’s way out. These labyrinths also tended to be more fully "furnished" than many hedge mazes, offering tables and chairs instead of simple stone benches. Some might even have an occasional rustic-styled love-seat in a secluded, shaded nook. Oh, the romantic possibilities!


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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One Response to The "Block" Labyrinth and its Variations

  1. Pingback: A Maze Miscellany | The Regency Redingote

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