The name Constance Spry doesn’t mean much to most Americans. Gardeners may know the Constance Spry rose, one of the first of David Austin’s English roses, but not know the woman behind the rose.
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.
Shock 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.
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 came to the United States in 1937 invited by a group of New York women to open an establishment on East 64th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. She also published Constance Spry’s Garden Notebook while she was here. I found that book in the stacks of the Umass Du Bois Library. This was my first visit to the stacks since my graduation in 1974. Now that I have found the garden riches in the SB section, you can bet I’ll be back.
The War put an end to her shop in the US, but she went on for years arranging flowers for many notables, including the flowers for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1960 Constance Spry, teacher, gardener, and flower arranger, died after a fall down the stairs. It is said that her last words, were “Someone else can arrange this.”