CONSTANCE SPRY: GARDENER, FLORIST, RENEGADE 1886–1960
Words by Laura Bayliss
Constance Spry was the kind of woman who said ‘yes!’ and worked out the details later. When her culinary pal Rosemary Hume wavered at the idea of putting on a feast for 350 foreign dignitaries at the Queen’s Coronation with zero large-scale kitchen experience and very little prep time, Constance apparently said something along the lines of, ‘you’ve not run a restaurant, no, but you’ve eaten in one so you’ll be fine’. And that’s how we ended up with Coronation chicken. At a time when most women lived quiet domestic lives, Constance never stopped to ask ‘how’ before jumping into a new challenge. That’s our kind of woman.
At Grace & Thorn, we love a rule-breaker, and Constance certainly nipped conformity in the bud with her floral displays – she thought nothing of going bigger and bolder, whether she was asked to or not. When the status quo at the time was for Victorian-style formality, all matchy-matchy and neat bouquets, Constance was foraging for foliage, sticking veg in vases, creating wall-size installations and rooting around inside the cupboards of her clients for unusual objects to house her creations. Constance was using jam jars long before they found their way onto Pinterest. As the in-vogue celebrity of flora, she even did the flowers for the most controversial wedding of the twentieth century: Wallis Simpson and the soon-to-be-exiled King Edward VIII. But she was so much more than a world-renowned floral decorator (as she liked to be called) with royals in her address book. She was a gardener, cook, secretary of the Dublin Red Cross, headmistress, bestselling pottery designer, businesswoman, author of thirteen books and an OBE. She was the original multihyphenate, a century before it was fashionable. It wasn’t just in the world of floristry that Constance turned heads either, she raised more than a few eyebrows in her personal life too, managing to find time alongside her non-stop career for two husbands (although she never technically married the second one), a son and a lesbian lover. Constance Spry was a busy lady.
Constance moved to London from Ireland with her young son in 1916, walking out on her violent first husband, their six-year marriage and a successful career touring the country teaching women the importance of good nutrition, hygiene and home management. Motherhood wasn’t something that settled well with Constance though – she’d always much rather have been tending to her garden and hanging out with her blooms. In London, Constance met well-connected civil servant Shav Spry, who quickly became the new love of her life. The two were a dazzling pair who loved to socialise, hosting raucous parties down at their Surrey mansion. In 1923 Constance officially divorced her husband, when divorce really wasn’t a thing people did (even her own family opposed the idea) and took Spry’s name (although the two never actually married because Shav couldn’t bring himself to divorce his own wife. Men.). In a roundabout way, Constance finally had everything she’d ever wanted, including an enormous walled garden all of her own. Many people would have sat back and enjoyed their glorious turn of Fortune’s wheel. But unsurprisingly Constance was not one to rest on her hand-picked laurels; she continued to make the long journey every morning up from Surrey, across the city to our very own east London, to continue her role as headmistress at the experimental Homerton and South Hackney Day Continuation School, teaching factory workers cookery, dressmaking and flower arranging.
It was at one of the Sprys’ famous parties that Constance landed her first big floristry gig through a friend of Shav’s: providing the weekly flowers for the Granada cinema chain (side note: how lovely to think of a time when cinemas had weekly flowers). But it was her establishment-rocking window display at Atkinson’s perfumery on Old Bond Street that changed her life forever. Using hedgerow flowers, old man’s beard, blackberries and orchids caused such a stir in 1920s England that it is reported police had to break up the crowds of onlookers. Now that’s making an impact with flowers! Constance was suddenly the florist of the moment, and business boomed. At the grand old age of 43, she had a major career change and opened Flower Decoration Ltd, moving to larger premises in 1934 with a staff of 70. In the same year she launched the Constance Spry Flower School. The society weddings quickly followed.
Constance considered herself an artist and flowers were her medium. She referred to herself as a floral decorator, rather than a florist, and her teams were instructed to enter through the front doors of their clients, not the tradesmen’s entrances. Constance insisted they wore hats and gloves like ladies. From the outset, Flower Decoration rocked the tightly furled world of flower arranging, with flowers dipped in wax, kale leaves in bouquets and basically doing whatever the hell she wanted. Drawing inspiration from the Dutch Masters, her displays were dramatic, wild and unpredictable, but they were also elegant and balanced. She rejected rules, labels and expectations and always liked to cause a stir, but it wasn’t purely for effect; she just did what she felt was right. She refused to compromise in her romantic life either. And so marks the arrival of Hannah Gluck, a Hampstead artist who had a regular order of flowers delivered to her home from Flower Decoration. Constance loved how Gluck interpreted her creations – in paintings, often 6ft tall – she even compared them to the Dutch Masters, of which we know she was a big fan. This was high praise. When Constance finally went to find out who was painting these amazing pictures, the two became inseparable. Although Constance didn’t talk about their relationship in public, it was pretty common knowledge that they were lovers. But don’t worry about Shav: he was having an affair with Constance’s assistant. It was all very civilised.
The commission that really got the world talking about Constance Spry was the much publicised and globally anticipated wedding of Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor. Huge bunches of lilies were brought from Paris and the rest of the oversize stems were plucked from the fields surrounding the chateau in the South of France, where this hot-ticket event took place. It brought Constance instant notoriety, and not all the good kind. But the royals quickly got over her connection to the whole abdication thing and she was brought back into favour for The Queen’s Coronation in 1953. This was when she was also tasked with hosting dinner for several hundred visiting dignitaries, with the help of her foodie partner in crime, Rosemary Hume – and how our nation’s beloved Coronation chicken came to be. Many flowers for the event were shipped in from the homes of the international guests, representing through flowers the global reach of the Commonwealth – sweet peas, gladioli, peonies, delphinium, lotuses… And on The Queen’s table, Spry stuffed a load of flowers into a formal and elaborate candelabra and threw out the candles.
During the Second World War, there wasn’t, unsurprisingly, as much need for floral design so Constance grew her own veg and returned to teaching. In 1942 her book Come Into the Garden, Cook was published, with the hope of inspiring people to grow their own and join in the war effort. The remaining years of Constance’s life were not a gentle slide into retirement. Before she died in 1960 aged 72, Constance packed in her bestselling Fulham Pottery range, carpet design collaborations, her flower school, more cookbooks, more growing veg and keeping chickens, a domestic science school, and tours of American and Australia. It’s a shame she didn’t quite make it to see the swinging sixties and the decade when women really let loose, something she would surely have approved of. But, perhaps, rather than missing out on this long-awaited female revolution she had in fact blazed the trail for the uprising. From what could have been a relatively small life in Ireland with a rather depressing outlook, Constance was the queen of reinvention, with a can-do attitude, who never put up with anything just to keep the peace. Even in death Constance caused rifts in the design establishment. As recently as 2004, Dyson (yes, of the vacuum cleaners) is said to have resigned from the board of trustees of The Design Museum over an upcoming exhibition about Constance Spry, stating that flower arranging was not real design. Not that old argument again... While Conran allegedly thought it represented bourgeois mediocrity. Harsh.
Happily, there are plenty of other people who appreciated all that Constance contributed to contemporary life in the first half of the twentieth century. Despite her fancy social circles and high-society clients, she always remained dedicated to making flowers and food available to everyone, informed by her early work as an educator. After all, anyone can pick a load of leaves from the hedgerows or their back gardens and with them bring beauty into their home. To pay respect to her achievements, a blue plaque sits on the site of Flower Decoration on South Audley Street in Mayfair. And her approach to floristry lives on in every foraged branch, bunch of cow parsley or asymmetrical stem that finds its way into a floral display.
Constance Spry’s rules for life*
- Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do something. If you can make a cup of tea, you can open up a teashop.
- Be bold. But keep things elegant. If in doubt, leave it out.
- Nature is beautiful in any form. There’s no need for labels.
- Delegate and get your friends to help you.
- Always wear a large hat.
- Don’t put up with bad relationships, bad advice or bad taste.
Constance Spry at The Garden Museum
From 17 May 2021 (pandemic dependent) The Garden Museum is all hail Constance Spry in an exhibition celebrating her life and legacy. Guest curated by Shane Connolly – himself a floral designer and royal florist – the show includes never before seen photographs of Constance, along with artefacts, recordings, anecdotes, books and paintings sourced from across her inspiring, extraordinary life.
For more information see: gardenmuseum.org.uk