In a Vase on Monday. Tribute to Constance Spry.

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 Sprymeans 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.

Kale. Constance spry

Kale. Constance Spry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Kale. Chloris

Kale. Chloris

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.

Page for How to do the Flowers. Constance Spry. 1953

Page from How to do the Flowers. Constance Spry. 1953

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.

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dsc_1137Constance 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.

Gluck

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.

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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.

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46 Responses to In a Vase on Monday. Tribute to Constance Spry.

  1. Christina says:

    A fabulous post Liz; as usual fascinating and I love the gossip. I bet the Pianist was scowling like your father when you picked his ingredients!

  2. Fun post. I ran to see if I have any of Constance’s books, but no. (And only found 1 on Amazon. Not surprisingly, it was too rich…$599!) I enjoy digging around in charity shops for gardening books when I’m in Britain, so will have to keep an eye out. She certainly was a trend setter, as I have later guides from Malcolm Hillier and Rosemary Verey that sing bits of her song. My first visit to England in 2001 followed on the heels of reading the Timber Press reprints of Beverley Nichols.

  3. Eliza Waters says:

    Thank you for this educational post, Liz. I didn’t know about Constance Spry and indeed see that we owe her a debt of thanks for introducing my most favorite style of arranging. As Marian said, it seems that there is a dearth of her books on this side of the Atlantic. Maybe a vintage book store may have something. There’s always the internet, too.
    Lovely arrangements this week, I particularly love the vase for the snowdrops.

  4. Cathy says:

    We would be disappointed if you cut a long story short, Chloris! I was really interested to read about Constance Spry as I heard a Radio 4 programme recently, probably Woman’s Hour, talking about her and was really intrigued. It’s daft for people to turn their noses up at kale in a vase, or any other vegetable in fact, because if it was grown in a border for its foliage or flowers it would be considered perfectly acceptable. I certainly have some very pretty purple kale which indeed would loook stunning in a vase, as does yout kale of course – and your snowdrops – and your beautiful foliage and spriggy bits, such glorious greens! Will check out that exhibition and see if I can squeeze it in tomorrow… Thanks for sharing today Chloris, as always

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Cathy. Did you go to the RHS Early Spring Show? I haven’ t been for years, I don’t know why as it is always such a treat.

      • Cathy says:

        Yes, I did visit, and intended to write a post but was too bogged down in decorating. Not having been before I didn’t know what to expect. It was very compact but quite a few things of interest – most people were flocking round Avon and Harveys buying snowdrops!

  5. Peter Herpst says:

    I very much enjoyed both your story and arrangements. I’d not known about Constance Spry and am glad for the introduction. We do, indeed, owe her our gratitude for changing ideas about appropriate vase contents.

  6. What a fascinating post, chockablock full of tasty tit bits. You are a great story teller, Liz.

  7. Ed Morrow says:

    An interesting and thoughtful article. The Beverly Nichols book was, I believe, titled “A Thatched Roof”.
    Ed Morrow
    Carmel Valley, CA

  8. I knew Spry’s style but not all this enticing backstory. Thanks for all this information and your lovely interpretations.

  9. Alison C says:

    How interesting, that sounds like a book to add to my list.I have one wall vase but I find the water dries up very quickly. I used it for a dried arrangement a few weeks ago. Kale is so interesting to look at and so green and fresh, I hope your guests enjoy it. Is it very far removed from the ornamental cabbages you sometimes see in arrangements? This is better as you can eat it!

    • Chloris says:

      Yes the water does dry up quickly and there is also the worry about the wall getting dirty. Still wall vases are pretty. Yes ornamental kale is related to edible kale.

  10. I so love your long, “gossipy” posts! I’d heard of Constance Spry but was completely unaware of her history and enjoyed your condensed summary. I also love all of your vases. I remain hopeful that my Garrya elliptica will someday be more than 6 inches tall and produce those wonderful tassels. Your post may inspire me to do something with the long Artichoke stems currently threatening to cover the stairway down my back slope too.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Kris. You will love your Garrya elliptica when it grows a bit. And Constance is right, there is no reason why we shouldn’t use vegetables in arrangements.

  11. Cathy says:

    As always, a very enjoyable post. I had never heard of Constance Spry before. I do love the idea of using vegetables in a vase, but the snowdrops are definitely more my cup of tea!

  12. Love the post and it proved to be intriguing as always. Constance Spry is a name i had heard, but I couldn’t have remembered why. The Snowdrops look amazing in their white vase and I love the kale texture. My grandmother had those wall vases, but never used them – I just learned what they were. Thank you.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Amy. Wall vases are fun but the water doesn’ t last long and there is always the risk of getting the wall dirty. Still, I like the effect of foliage and particularly ivy trailing down my wall.

  13. mrsdaffodil says:

    Delightful, fascinating post. What a lovely collection of vases you have.

  14. Brian Skeys says:

    As always your posts are very informative Chloris. I love the Kale arrangement.

  15. Julie says:

    I absolutely love this post, so interesting and had to laugh at the bottom in that air, that’s how I always think of my mum, my dad is a more upright gardener. My Mum also a great flower arranger, (that gene was not passed down) was influenced by Constance Spry. And love the thought too of being able to eat the flower arrangement the following day.

  16. Bodger says:

    I love the purity of the dark green and white mixture. I lack the self control to keep a monochrome garden, I can’t resist the lure of a dollop of colour. I had a white section when I owned a large garden, accessorized with matching tunnel tailed pigeons. It was like living in a Greenpeace advert.

  17. gardenfancyblog says:

    What an incredibly interesting post — garden history and garden people are so fascinating. I don’t think I knew exactly who Constance Spry was, although I knew of the rose named after her (David Austen’s first English rose). Very informative — thanks! -Beth

  18. I did enjoy this entertaining read, Chloris!

  19. Interesting, of course and “insolite” (bouquet with vegetables)

  20. Such a lot of work goes into your posts, I am in awe. So interesting, even for someone who’s idea of flower arranging is “bung them in a vase”. Thanks

  21. jmnowak says:

    I loved flower arranging when younger, but my style would be quite simple. I did try more complicated ones but I never liked them. Ikebana styling is what I truly aspire to. My flowers tend to be the leaves and branches that land on my balcony from the Australian natives garden where I live.
    I had heard of Spry but did not know much about her. I’ll do some reading now.
    Gluck means happy or happiness.
    I had never heard of or seen wall vases, such a great idea. I would use them. I like such quirkiness.

  22. annamadeit says:

    Personally, I’m glad you don’t like to “cut a long story short”. Although I had heard her name before, I didn’t really know her legacy or significance. Thank you for the brief – I find her story fascinating! She sounds like someone I would have gotten along with. 🙂

  23. Fascinating. I’m very pleased to learn something about Constance Spry, Gluck, and the other characters of their world. New information for me, and a great post!

  24. Anna says:

    A most enjoyable and informative post Chloris. I’ve never read any of Constance Spry’s books but have come across them before in second hand book shops. Have made a note to make a purchase in the future. I hope that your guests relished eating that most striking looking kale.Those snowdrops in a white vase are simply exquisite.

  25. A very interesting post, Liz. Thank you.

  26. A fantastic post Liz; as common captivating and I cherish the gossip…Delightful, intriguing post. What a dazzling accumulation of vases you have..

  27. Caro says:

    Vegetables and hedgerow plants have a unique beauty but I hadn’t realised that it was Constance Spry who first popped them into a vase. Thanks for this thoroughly enjoyable post, Chloris, so glad you gave us the full picture!

  28. Lavinia Ross says:

    Thank you for the bit of history, Chloris. I had not heard of Constance Spry. That was quite the life she lived.

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