Pink Fire Pointer Constance Spry

Constance Spry

British floral designer Constance Spry
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"China tea, the scent of hyacinths, wood fires, and bowls of violets -- that is my idea of an agreeable February afternoon."-- Constance Spry

A gardening friend and I have a theory.  We are fascinated with the eccentric, confident, charming, and visionary women gardeners we have read about and whose gardens we have seen.  We think there should be a book of their collected stories.  These women share so many characteristics.   Recently I learned about another irresistible figure in this field.  And I thought, oh the power of words.  One quote and a new world opens up.

But first, back to the pantheon of women gardeners she joins.  It is true that in the history of gardening and flowers there have been many outstanding women who were trailblazers.  Vita Sackvile-West, Gertrude Jekyll, Rosemary Verey, and Beatrix Ferrand are women who stand out in their field.  These were women who saw the world with fresh eyes and were able to create something new; they had the talent to turn their vision into a reality.

When I saw the above quote by British floral designer Constance Spry, I was lead on a very pleasant and instructive journey.  I needed to find out who she was.  Her words had conjured up a lovely image.  Yes, I thought, that is exactly what I would like on a February or March afternoon --  "china tea, the scent of hyacinths, wood fires, and bowls of violets."  And so I started to read about her and learned that Constance Spry was another trailblazer to add to the list. Her field was flowers and she would change the way people used them in flower arrangements forever.  Don't you love stories about strong and visionary women who were not afraid to shake things up?  A book of their collected stories would be such a good read.  

Constance Spry's flower school
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The name Constance Spry had been familiar to me over the years, but if I am honest, mainly because of the David Austin rose named after her.  It turns out that she was an innovator in the art of flower arranging, transforming the way people looked at flowers and decorated with them in the home.  She inspired many florists in the 1930's with her natural, fluid and loose flower arrangements.  Her romantic and unconventional arrangements included garden flowers, leaves, branches, berries, grasses, and other humble items that were usually discarded at the time, but are used by florists today.  In fact, many contemporary florists cite Constance Spry as their biggest influence.  The natural and romantic flower arrangements of today that looked like they were just plucked from the garden are descendants of her work.  But in the 1930's when she was starting her flower business, the prevailing style was a tight and formal look with stiffly wired hothouse blooms.  When Constance Spry entered the scene, the public didn't know what hit them.

As I read more, I learned that in the early thirties Constance Spry created a spectacle on Bond Street when she designed a display of scarlet roses and red kale leaves for a perfumery window.  It attracted crowds so enormous that the police were brought in to control traffic.  The public was fascinated with this daring new flower designer.  Exhibiting confidence and style, she had a joie de vivre that was contagious.  She became acquainted with many artistic figures of the time, such as Cecil Beaton and Syrie Maugham and easily entered their world of flamboyant glamour.  She inspired everyone with her confidence, talent and passion.  And despite having wealthy clients, she always promoted the concept that flowers were for everyone and would demonstrate how to create beautiful arrangements with the most humble ingredients.  After a very modest childhood, her life had drastically changed and in the 1930's Constance Spry was invited to exclusive dinner parties and social events.  She became the most sought after florist in English society. Her highest honor came when she was chosen to be the florist for Queen Elizabeth II's wedding and coronation.  

One of Constance Spry's floral arrangements
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After doing a little more research, I found out a few more things about this very interesting woman.  She was born in Derby, England in 1886 and was the oldest of five children.  Her father was a railway worker who went to night school to become an administrator in the education system.  When she was nineteen years old she enrolled in a course for health lecturers instituted by the National Health Society.  Afterwards she got a job as a lecturer and became an agent for social reform.  In Dublin where her family had moved, she met the Countess of Aberdeen who took her under her wing.  Constance joined the countess in her efforts to improve the health of the Irish poor.  She traveled through Ireland as a lecturer for the Women's National Health Association.  In 1921 she moved to London where she became headmistress at a school for impoverished children.  She ran it somewhat unconventionally, filling it with art and flowers because she believed in the healing and inspiring power of beauty on her young students.

And gardening and flowers were her true love.  She took up gardening at her house in the country and filled the rooms with her experimental flower arrangements.  She was inspired by 17th century Dutch flower paintings and her own collection of 18th and 19th century flower books.   On Mondays she would travel from her home in the country to her school in London with a basket of flowers from her garden and decorate the school with flower arrangements.   She noticed the beneficial effect the flowers had on her young students.  As more people began to see her work, she began to receive commissions for private homes and events.  She was becoming famous.  Everyone wanted to be the person who had discovered Constance Spry and pass her name on to their friends.

Arrangements like this by Amy Merrick, a contemporary florist who works out of New York, show the influence of Constance Spry.  Photo via here

But it was when she met theatre designer Norman Wilkinson that her life changed.  He convinced her to give up her position as head of the school and become a full-time floral designer in London.  She opened up a florist shop and flower arranging school in Mayfair and it soon became one of the most successful of its type in London.  Everyone wanted their homes decorated with Constance Spry flower arrangements and many people wanted to learn how to do it themselves.  She was the most sought after floral designer in London, receiving commissions from many famous people including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.  She worked with interior designer Syrie Maugham (wife of the writer Somerset Maugham) and many other talented designers on their design projects.  They would not think of decorating a house, an event or a party without flowers by Constance Spry.

The Surprising Life of Constance Spry by Sue Shephard was published in 2010 and is a wonderful book about this legendary figure.

In February of 2012 Constance Spry was honored with an English Heritage blue plaque on the site of her hugely successful Mayfair shop.  Photo via here

I loved learning about Constance Spry and her belief in the healing power of beauty.  She thought that everyone would benefit from beauty in their homes and that flowers would provide it.  Her theories were meant to apply to all and she encouraged people to use wild flowers and berries plucked from their surroundings to bring beauty into their homes. She shaped the way we decorate with flowers today and wrote twelve books on the topic.  If you would like to learn more about her, read "The Surprising Life of Constance Spry."  It is a fascinating book about this amazing woman who was not afraid to shake things up and leave her mark in the field of floral design.