“I want to shout out: do what you please, follow your own star; be original if you want to be and don’t if you don’t want to be. Just be natural and gay and light-hearted 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. Open your minds to every form of beauty.” Constance Spry
Those passionate words came from a woman who was born into poor circumstances in England in 1886. There was little beauty in her world, but young Connie Fletcher spent most of her ‘Saturday pennies’ on packets of seeds so that she could have something pretty. No one could have dreamed that one day she would be arranging flowers for British royalty, and hobnobbing with the bright lights of high society.
In her excellent biography, The Surprising Life of Constance Spry: From social reformer to society florist, Sue Shephard takes us from Spry’s humble beginnings, to her 1929 meteoric success as a ‘flower decorator’ to the noble and wealthy in London, through the wartime years when her efforts led her into the kitchen as well as the garden, and closing the circle with arranging flowers for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and back to teaching
Spry held several jobs into and through the 20’s beginning with a traveling program in Ireland educating people in an attempt to wipe out TB. That job led her to a short lived marriage and a son. She then worked for the Red Cross; as a welfare supervisor; as an educator for the Ministry of Aircraft Production; and as headmistress in a school for teenage factory workers where she added flower arranging to the curriculum. There she saw the girls’ hunger for beauty, and showed them how flowers could fill that hunger.
At the same time Spry’s local fame as a flower arranger grew, as she did the flowers for friends’ parties and wedding. In 1929 she agreed to do large arrangements for the windows of a new fashionable perfumery. This was an adventure; Spry was always ready for an exciting project. The shop was to open in November, not the best time for interesting flowers, but when the carillons rang out in joyful celebration the windows were filled with “old man’s beard with silvery seed-heads, copper colored leaves, great trails of hops turned to strawy gold,” and heavy green orchids she added at the last moment thinking that all those ‘weeds’ might not go over very well. The windows were a sensation and the beginning of her business. It was also a lesson in the use of plant material that was usually discarded “gone with the wheelbarrow”.
Along the way she set up housekeeping with Ernest Spry and became known as Mrs. Spry, but they never were officially married.
Later Shephard tells us, she met the artist Hannah Gluckstein, known only as Gluck. Their quiet relationship was accepted for four years in their circles, until Gluck ended it. This had not been widely known until Shephard’s book..
All during the 30’s Spry was The Person to arrange the flowers for society parties. She and Syrie Maugham, the famous decorator, known for her white rooms, often worked in tandem. At one elegant party Spry used celadon vases filled with “white lilies, eucalyptus, green hydrangea heads, lichen covered branches, with perhaps one brilliant spike of scarlet anthurium for drama.” Such combinations became all the rage.
She traveled to France to arrange huge pink peonies, cascades of lilies, lilac and flowering laurel, acanthus and white yucca for the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Wallis Simpson, Her friendship and work for this couple put an end to other royal commissions. For a while.
She did not do all this single-handedly. At one time over 70 people trained in her style were employed by her business.
At the end of the 30’s Spry came to the United States under the auspices of the New York Botanic Garden and the Garden Clubs of America for lecture tours. She was such a success that wealthy New York matrons prevailed upon her to open a New York shop. She loved new projects, and with her usual enthusiasm and energy she plunged in. However, with the declaration of war in Britain, she returned to do her bit.
Her energy and optimism never wavered. The war sent her in a slightly new direction – the vegetable garden. Her thoughts about fresh vegetables and cooking would sound up to date today. The kitchen garden had always been a part of her decorating. She once said, “One has only to look at the lovely line and form of a group of kale leaves to realize that the humble kitchen garden can hold its own with the aristocrats of the hothouses.”
Indeed, Shephard makes it clear that Spry’s approach to gardening, and to ‘decorating’ with plants changed the way that we handle flower arrangements today, looking for original plant combinations and unique containers.
She also captures the verve of this un-prepossessing woman who inspired David Austin to name one of his hardiest roses after her, and whose exhortation to be confident and to plea
please ourselves in the garden can still inspire us today. ###
Between the Rows January 15, 2011