I have been reading a great biography of the wonderful Constance Spry who was an amazingly innovative flower arranger. Fans of In a Vase on Monday owe her a great debt. She was the first one to browse the hedgerows and to use wild flowers, seed heads, fruit and vegetables in her arrangements. Beverley Nichols adored her. This is what he said in the foreword to her book: How to do the Flowers:
‘To do a Constance Spry …means 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 carnivals with cabbages’.
Yes, she even used cabbages or rhubarb leaves. There was great controversy when she made an arrangement using just kale, nobody had done such a thing before. Here it is, I think it looks lovely.
So here is my first vase in homage to Constance. I cheated a bit and used two kinds of Kale; Cavello nero and Pentland Brig , an heirloom variety which is delicious, so we can eat this arrangement tomorrow. In the meantime we have friends coming round this evening and I am interested to see their reaction to a vase full of vegetables.
Constance Spry was an incredibly energetic lady, she built up a successful shop and flower arranging business and did the flowers for the rich and famous. She was the darling of the gilded hedonists of the 1930’s who spent vast fortunes on flowers. She even managed to keep going in the more austere war years. She did the flowers for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and as a result she was out of royal favour for a while, but eventually she was forgiven and did the flowers for the Queen’s wedding. After the war, she ran a school for young ladies to learn how to cook and do the flowers and she even found time to write books.
My mother was a keen flower arranger and very good at it. She was very much influenced by Constance. She had most of her books and several Constance Spry vases. I can see her now, prowling round the garden with the secateurs at the ready, quite unaware of my father’s scowl as he watched his precious blooms being picked. My image of my father is bent over his flower beds, bottom in the air. If you came into my garden you would find me in the same pose as my father.
The vases Constance Spry designed were made by Fulham Pottery and if you look on eBay you will see that they go for silly prices. I wish I still had the ones my mother collected. In the 1930’s there was a craze for wall vases and Constance did many arrangements featuring these. You never see them now. I have an old French Quimper one. I have never used it before but I filled it with foliage for this post and I am pleased with the result. I used the leaves of Euonymus and Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’ and the long green tassels of Garrya elliptica. I am very fond of ivy and have quite a few different ones although I can’t remember their names apart from ‘Goldheart’. The only flower I used is the green, native Helleborus foetidus which pops up everywhere in my garden.
Constance Spry died in 1960. In 2004, there was an exhibition celebrating her work at the Museum of Design. Two of the directors, Sir Terence Conran, the furniture man and George Dyson, creator of overpriced vacuum cleaners, threatened to resign in protest. Conran referred disparagingly to her ‘high-society mimsiness’. She might have mixed with high society and she always wore a pretty hat; she might have run a finishing school for over-privileged debs, but she made flower arranging into an art form and one that can be enjoyed by everyone. And for those of us who love old-fashioned roses she was one of the first to seek them out and champion them. The rosarian, Graham Stuart Thomas went to her for advice when he was designing the rose garden at Mottisfont Abbey.
Actually, if you read Sue Shephard’s biography ‘The Surprising Life of Constance Spry’ you will find out that Constance wasn’t so ‘mimsy’ after all. Divorce, adultery and living ‘in sin’ were considered outrageous in the 1930’s and Constance was not even married to Shav Spry as he was married to someone else. Nobody knew though. And starting in 1932, she had a four- year intense relationship with the artist, Hannah Gluckstein, who insisted on being called simply Gluck.
They met when Gluck painted an arrangement of white flowers that she ordered from the Constance Spry shop.The painting took so long that the flowers had to be changed and rearranged over and over again for weeks. Constance was intrigued and went to meet Gluck. She loved the painting which was eventually finished and called Chromatic and the two quickly became close. White interiors were all the rage in the 30’s. People were rebelling against the stuffy, over-furnished rooms of their parents. Beverley Nichols wrote with delight about his whitewashed room in his book, A Thatched Cottage. Somerset Maugham’s wife, Syrie was an interior designer and she adopted white walls and furnishings in her own home and for many high society customers. Constance introduced Gluck to her friends who immediately commissioned paintings of white flowers from her. So in homage to the 30’s mania for pure white I have produced my next vase. I used my pure white Furstenberg vase and ordinary Galanthus nivalis. I can’t bear to pick my specials, although I did add a couple of Ginn’s Imperatii which smells of almonds.
Apart from her white flowers Gluck was a fine artist. Whilst I was writing this I wondered whether there are any of her paintings in galleries. She was so slow that she didn’t paint a great many pictures. What a coincidence; I found there is a retrospective exhibition of her work at the Fine Art Society, New Bond Street, London this month which runs until the 28th February. I shall be going up to see it. If you are interested there is a good biography by Diana Souhami called Gluck.
Well this is my contribution to Cathy’s great meme In a Vase on Monday. As usual, I can’t seem to cut a long story short. My followers will probably know by now that I can’t resist a story, specially if it is spiced with a bit of gossip.
Do pop over to Ramblinginthegarden and see what everyone else is putting in their vases.