Do you love lavish floral arrangements bursting with colour and natural vitality? If you do, then you must thank Constance Spry.
Constance Spry was a hugely influential British floral designer in the 1920’s to 1950’s. She made her reputation by putting wild flowers and twigs from hedgerows into the windows of a Bond Street jeweller’s.
She would heap together masses of a single flower, presenting urns brimming with a profusion of scented lilac or Portuguese laurel, or huge, lavish arrangement of blooms, in the style of a Dutch Master.
Photo of a Constance Spry arrangement from the London Design Museum
In the 1930s, Constance Spry created a window display featuring scarlet roses and red kale leaves for a Bond Street perfumery. It attracted enormous crowds, and the police had to be called to help with the traffic flow.
Spry rejected the stiff, wired arrangements of the Edwardian era, and pioneered informal, asymmetrical arrangements, which remain hugely popular today. She created loose, fluid arrangements in solid blocks of colour, with grasses, vegetables and berries that had never been used in mainstream floristry.
Constance Spry arrangement (left) recreated by florist Amy Merrick (right)
Her daring arrangements often featured curly-leaved kale, huge stems of rhubarb and silvery fronds of globe artichoke.
Constance preferred non-traditional containers, often found in junk shops, or after raiding her clients’ cupboards, instead of the tall, narrow vases of her time.
She repurposed meat platters, baking tins, rusted cans and upside-down hats .
Constance Spry also designed her own vases, the best known being made by Fulham Pottery, which were often boat-shaped or wide-necked.
Collection of Constance Spry vases
Sadly, few of them survive unblemished, because Spry encouraged customers to paint them to match their interiors, although she recommended “Egg-shell blue, a dusty pink and soft lime-green [as] three colours that meet with general approval and look well.”
More Constance Spry vases
She became famous through her society clients, her grand friends like Syrie Maugham, wife of Somerset and the most famous interior designer of her day, and the constant use of her flowers in society and fashion magazines such as Vogue. She created the flowers for the Elizabeth Arden London salon, for Wallis Simpson’s wedding to the Duke of Windsor and for the processional route for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.
For almost three decades, until her death in 1960, Constance Spry was a towering influence on English domestic interiors, through her shops, her correspondence courses and her school of floristry, her interior design and cookery books.
The flower arranging began when she was teaching domestic science in a poor East London school, and was touched by the reaction to the little posies of flowers she brought in.
Constance Spry felt that everyone’s life could be enriched by flowers — that all you needed was imagination. The legendary British rose breeder David Austin named his first rose after her, in 1963.
David Austin rose, Constance Spry
In 2004, after the Design Museum of London mounted a Constance Spry exhibition, the museum’s co-founders threatened to resign, claiming that flower arranging was “merely shallow styling” and not true design. “We want to restore Constance Spry’s place as one of the lost heroes in the history of modernism,” said the curator, Libby Sellers.
Sadly, neither the photographs nor the illustrations of Spry’s arrangements can fully convey the sensory impact of her creations – the brilliant colours, the heady fragrances and the dramatic scale. But now that I understand Constance Spry’s tremendously influential impact on floristry (thanks to amazing Mudgee florist Shiralee Archer who loaned me her Constance Spry First Editions), I recognise her legacy over and over again, in so many of the wonderful floral creations which bring joy to all, today.