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Flower power

2 October 2004

12:00 AM

2 October 2004

12:00 AM

Constance Spry (1886–1960) was a remarkable figure who exerted a powerful influence over the taste of generations of home-makers, particularly from the 1930s to the 1950s. Born in Derby, she was brought up in Ireland where she studied hygiene and physiology, with a view to a career in nursing. A natural communicator, she soon found herself lecturing on first aid and home nursing for the Women’s National Health Association in Ireland. From the start there was a noticeable emphasis on self-help and what can be done in the home. But Spry was always capable of working equally well with larger institutions, and at the beginning of the first world war she became secretary of Dublin Red Cross.

Two years later she escaped an unhappy marriage by skedaddling to England, where she found work as a welfare supervisor. Another five years were to elapse before she was appointed headmistress of the Homerton and South Hackney Day Continuation School (for girls) in East London, but it was here that the mature vision of Constance Spry began to emerge. In order to brighten up her schoolrooms, Spry began to bring to work bunches of violets or sweet peas, and noticed at once how much they were appreciated. As a result, she started teaching basic flower arranging to her pupils, stressing how cheaply this could be done with a little imagination and the use of wild flowers (whose glories are often disparaged as weeds), twigs, leaves and berries — the sort of thing that could be found even on urban wasteland or growing beside a canal.

This is where the tag ‘a millionaire for a few pence’ presumably comes from, and accounts for Spry’s early reputation as a social reformer and democratic guru of home-making. Her ideas were ingenious and essentially philanthropic, and brought a great deal of pleasure to many, at the same time revolutionising the formal presentation of flowers. For Spry was encouraged not only by her pupils’ response but also by her second husband, to trust her luck and follow her extraordinary talents by resigning her headteachership and setting up business as a florist. This she did in 1928, opening her first shop, ‘Flower Decorations’ in Pimlico, the following year. Within a couple of years she had become friends with the ultra-chic interior decorator Syrie Maugham, for whose celebrated White Room she contrived floral embellishments.

Before Spry, flower arranging had been dull and traditional, mostly restricted by rules of segregating flower types and colours. She changed all that, prepared to try anything, but obviously possessing a natural ‘eye’ to guide her and an increasingly sophisticated and inventive visual sense for structuring her effects. She was particularly adept at arranging fluid forms in solid blocks of colour, but encouraged the readers of her books on the subject (her first was published in 1934) to improvise and be creative, trying out the effect of cow parsley or curly kale, for instance, in a vase. Another aspect of her delightful informality was Spry’s habit of filling any old container she could find rather than insisting on the finest cut glass. Indeed, some of her most spectacular effects were achieved by raiding attics and junk shops and filling baking trays or gravy boats with flowers. Likewise she acquired various wooden pedestals to lift her decorations to the centre of attention in a room.

Although some initially dismissed her work as eccentric, soon every stylish young bride wanted her wedding flowers to be done by Spry. She designed the wedding of her friend Cecil Beaton’s sister, Nancy, in 1933, and worked for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Later on she arranged the flowers for Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding in 1947 and her coronation in 1953. She had begun by supplying the fashionable stores of Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road, but the taste for a Spry design so caught on that her business had to move to larger premises in South Audley Street in order to accommodate a staff of 70. She had initiated an industry: by 1938, she had a shop in New York. In 1940, ‘Flower Decorations’ officially became ‘Constance Spry Ltd’.

In spite of this success and any number of prestigious commissions, Spry did not lose her common touch. She remained a devoted educationist, who firmly believed that the lot of man may be bettered by inspired teaching. And she was not averse to taking a hand herself. In 1931 she began to teach weekly classes in flower arranging at Swanley Horticultural College in Kent. In 1934 she opened the Constance Spry Flower School in the basement of her shop. After the war, she and her husband bought a big house in Berkshire and founded the Domestic Science School for girls, in partnership with Rosemary Hume. (She was to be co-writer of The Constance Spry Cookery Book, which was, unbelievably, the first to challenge Mrs Beeton’s 100-year ascendancy.) If you couldn’t run to personal tuition, there was a correspondence course, full of practical no-nonsense advice, which was popular all over the world.

The richness and activity of her life, and the sumptuousness and invention of her designs, are not apparent in this exhibition, supposedly dedicated to her pioneering work. Nor does the visitor get any real sense of the revolutionary nature of her interventions. (The ‘millionaire for a few pence’ aspect; there is more emphasis on the grander events of her career.) However much one is sadly inured to the black-and-white livery of the Design Museum’s galleries, the current installation is far too severe to do justice to an artist of Spry’s colour-filled achievement. The bizarre idea of projecting slides of her arrangements on to black walls is quite literally the dimmest I’ve come across for a long while. Inevitably, the display is mostly archival, relying heavily on documentary photographs (too many of which are black-and-white), with an inappropriate soundtrack of the most intrusive and profoundly irritating twingly-twangly electronic music it has been my misfortune to hear.

I do think that visitors to the Design Museum would benefit enormously from being able to take home modest pamphlets or brochures about the exhibitions they’ve seen. I am not asking for magnificent catalogues, but for some visual and verbal memento which they would be able to look at, even read, in the privacy of their own homes. Most people don’t read lengthy wall texts, however informative and well-written — as in fact these are — and the Spry story is worth knowing. Even the most diligent researcher, such as the present writer, would be driven out of the gallery within half an hour by the loudness of the wretched ‘music’.

This is quite a small exhibition, which probably deserves a look but clearly needs some star-turn flower-arrangement exhibits. A couple of sombre confections of mostly dried plants is not sufficient. Something altogether more vivid and real is needed to evoke the spirit of Constance Spry, though I’m well aware that this might have cost a lot more. Yet it should have been done for the woman who acted so tellingly upon her radical belief that ‘flowers should be a means of self-expression for everyone’.

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