The difficulty with holly, ‘winter’s pride’ as the poet Thomas Gisborne put it, is not that it is hard to find in the landscapes of of that captain of capability, Lancelot Brown, but that it is impossible to tell whether it has been planted or has arrived naturally.
Here is the Rev William Gilpin: ‘we could wish to recommend it, not in a hedge, but in a forest; where, mixed with oak, or ash, or other trees of the wood, it contributes to form the most beautiful scenes; blending itself with the trunks, and skeletons of the winter; or with the various greens of summer.’ Here, in similar terms, is Brown’s frequent advocate, William Marshall: ‘feathering from the ground and rising with an irregular, loose, elegant outline; forming one of the most Ornamental evergreens which Nature has furnished us with. What renders [holly] in this point of view peculiarly valuable, – it is not only highly ornamental in singlets or groups standing in the open air, but will flourish with great beauty under the shade and drip of the more lofty deciduous tribes. Besides, the blushing fruit of the Holly renders it most ornamental, at a time when the face of Nature is in a manner divested of every other ornament: In this light it is superior to the Box; and, indeed, taken all in all, the Holly is undoubtedly entitled to rake rank amongst the first rank of Ornamentals. In respect of Utility, the Holly gives place to the Box; except for the purposes of Hedges…’
Were you to ask me, then with such ubiquitous encomia, I would have no hesitation in saying that Brown did plant it and that it should be planted wherever a plantation or clump is intended to retain the character of a natural wood or thicket, rather than an open grove, and I would single out for your admiration the serpentine walk laid out at Heythrop in about 1705 and planted with an island of holly along its course, the hollies in Brown’s belt at Flambards, serving a very similar purpose in the drive there, and the hollies planted off the corner of the houses at Denham Place, Peper Harow, Berrington Hall and many other such places.