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Constance Spry – Two Degrees of Separation

Yesterday, Christopher Petkanas in The New York Times Design Section called Constance Spry a ‘Flowering Inferno.”  I have written about Constance Spry myself in the past, once after interviewing a neighbor, Charlotte Thwing, who has since passed away, but who in her youth worked for Spry in her Madison Avenue shop just before World War II.

Petkanas, in talking about a new biography, The Surprising Life of Constance Spry, bySue Shepard, passed on much juicier gossip than I ever got from Charlotte.  Spry never legally married her second husband and later she had an affair with a cross-dressing artist, Hanna Gluckstein!  However, he never mentioned the Madison Avenue shop. I certainly hope it is in the book.

My Interview with Charlotte Thwing (published 11-2000)

Recently I saw a full page florist ad with a profusion of gourds, pumpkins, artichokes, millet, wheat, kale, sage and Indian corn arranged in profusion with roses, mums, daisies, miniature calla lilies and waterlily. The arrangements were lovely. Any of us would have been happy to put such centerpieces on our Thanksgiving table.

Very pretty. Definitely not shocking. But shock is what greeted Constance Spry”s outrageous arrangements in the Britain of the 20s and 30s. She was possibly the first to break down the barriers that existed between the flower garden and the kitchen garden. I think we can credit Constance Spry with many of the ways we use and decorate with flowers today.

Constance Spry is not a household name. Certainly not to Americans, not even American gardeners, although those rose lovers among us may have noticed that David Austin, the great British rosarian and hybridizer, named the first of his English roses after her. But there was a time when this woman who opened a flower shop and created unique arrangements enjoyed fame, and even a kind of horticultural notoriety among those who parodied and mocked her arrangements.

Spry explained herself, “If to use a kale leaf for its fine modeling, a bunch of grapes for its exotic bloom, a spherical leek flower for its decisive shape, a bare branch for its delicate strength, is to like strange materials, then I am guilty, but not guilty of liking them for any perverse reason.”

Among her many admirers was Beverley Nichols, the British gardener, writer and wit. He talked about “doing a Constance Spry” which is to say  “standing before a bed of hydrangeas, when summer has fled, and seeing beauty in their pallid parchment blossoms.  It means suddenly stopping in a country lane and noting for the first time a scarlet cadenza of berries, and fitting it, in one’s mind’s eye, into a pewter vase against a white wall.  It means bouts with brambles, flirtations with ferns and carnival with cabbages.”

Constance Spry was born in 1886. She had varied careers in health, joined the civil service during World War I and was headmistress of a school teaching young teen aged girls who worked in factories. It was not until the 1920s that she began arranging flowers and 1929 before she opened her first shop in London.  In 1937 a group of New York women invited her to open an establishment on East 64th Street between Park and Madison Avenues.

In August of that year Charlotte Cox as she was then, and who later became my friend Charlotte Thwing of Hawley, began an apprenticeship there. She had always been interested in flowers and after two years at Mt. Holyoke College, and a European summer she enrolled at Stockbridge, part of the Massachusetts Agricultural College and later the University of Massachusetts, to study floriculture.

Charlotte described Constance Spry as “ordinary, not at all aristocratic. She did not present an impressive appearance. She had everyday common sense. She never wore a hat, but always had gloves and high heels – and always seemed to be rushing.”

Photographs of her at that time show her as a solid, tweedy matron, but “she had a tremendous imagination and nothing stopped her,” Charlotte said.

Charlotte spent long days on the top floor of the shop building working with two other young women. “They trained us.  Almost everything was wired with very thin wire. The wire was to give you control.”

She used dried material, seedpods, and vegetables and fruits. “You always had to remember that you were creating Art.”

Charlotte remembers that Spry used any kind of container, watering cans, tea pots, baby shoes, baskets.  “But the flowers were the main thing. The vase was essentially hidden.  For example she would use a flat white vase with white flowers and trailing branches. Her arrangements were very clever and interesting, never dull.”

Constance Spry’s arrangements showed up at society weddings and the windows at Bergdorf’s, the fashionable department store on Fifth Avenue.  “I don’t remember that we ever did a funeral although back then funerals were the bread and butter of the florist business.  Of course there were weddings.  Constance Spry did the wedding flowers when the Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated as King of England, married Wallis Simpson.”

Just before the shop opened Brenda Frazier, one of the most beautiful and famous debutantes of the time, had her coming out party. “The arrangements for Brenda’s party were very important. It was my job to take big magnolia leaves, and strip them so that only the veins were left. Then they were gilded,” Charlotte said.

After her apprenticeship in New York, Charlotte returned to Holyoke where her father was a well-known doctor. In March 1938, when she was just 25, she opened her own shop, The Flower Bowl.

“I had gotten a fantastic education by observing.  I think education can be caught, not always taught.  No other florist was like mine – and I intended to educate the town.  For my first Christmas I did arrangements in blue and silver – but never again,” she laughed.

The war ended Constance Spry’s New York shop, and marriage in 1941 changed Charlotte’s career as well.

The thing that did not really change was Charlotte’s approach to life – an approach she shared with Constance Spry who said, “I want to shout out – Do what you please, follow your own star.  Be Oriental if you want to be and don’t if you don’t want to be.  Just be natural and gay and lighthearted and pretty and simple and overflowing and general and baroque and bare and austere and stylized and wild and daring and conservative and learn and learn and learn.” #####

Constance Spry – The Rose. Those who grow roses may be familiar with the name Constance Spry because of David Austin’s beautiful pink rose. Here is the rose’s story.

David Austin, the British rose hybridizer, wanted to combine the shrubby growth habit of old  fashioned roses with the ability to bloom throughout the season like many modern roses.  One of his earliest experiments was to cross the Gallica ‘Belle Isis’ (which he later saw was not pure Gallica but included some Ayrshire rose) with the Floribunda ‘Dainty Maid’.  ‘Belle Isis’ was chosen for its fragrance, good health, and the shape of its flowers; ‘Dainty Maid’ was chosen because it also was a healthy variety with large, but single flowers in a clear shade of pink.

Austin was surprised that the size of the bush he created was not small as he expected . It was large and somewhat sprawly, but the flowers were gorgeous, large cup-shaped blooms with the myrhh scent that is typical of the Ayrshire rose, a family of ancient ramblers.  He felt the roses had “refinement and delicacy” and was pleased even though he had not achieved repeat blooming. It is one of Austin’s first hybrids, and remains one of his most popular roses in spite of its relatively short bloom season.

In a gentle enough climate, Zone 5 or warmer, this rose is often used as a climber,

Austin showed these roses to the great rosarian Graham Thomas who then introduced the rose to the public through the Sunningdale Nurseries in 1961. They named the flower ‘Constance Spry’ for the famous teacher, gardener, and flower arranger who had died the year before after a fall down the stairs. It is said that her last words, were ‘Someone else can arrange this.” ####

Beverley Nichols, was a great fan of Constance Spry and I am a great fan of them both. I wrote about them here.

The photo of Constance Spry is courtesy of the Design Museum. For more information about this fascinating woman who was a flower arranger, author and social reformer click here.