Digging deeper into the stories told in Constance Spry and the Fashion for Flowers, this online exhibition looks at Spry’s ground-breaking career, remarkable life, and the legacy she has left in floristry and beyond. Get to know the doyenne of flowers through films, articles and interviews with Spry experts and admirers, including memories from those who worked with Spry herself.
Curator of Constance Spry and the Fashion for Flowers, royal florist Shane Connolly introduces us to Spry’s world in this exhibition tour.
The wedding of Nancy Beaton and Houston Smiley, for James Jarche, Daily Herald, Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery © Mirrorpix
"The flower decorations in the Cathedral by Mrs Spry (one of the essential figures behind the scenes of social life) were all white, with every kind of lily and a little pampas grass. Special green hydrangea and eucalyptus were also noted." - Vogue, 1933
Curator and dress historian Amy de la Haye looks at how Constance Spry revolutionised the fashion for flowers at society and royal weddings.
"Her painting of this group exemplifies the delicacy and the strength, the subtleties and the grandeur of white flowers." - Constance Spry, Flower Decoration, 1934
In 1932, Spry’s friend Prudence Maufe commissioned a flower display from her to celebrate the completion of the artist Gluck’s new art studio. She wrote to Gluck ‘I think she has a genius for flowers and you have a genius for paint, so that ought to make for happiness.’ Gluck endeavoured to paint the arrangement and over several months had the display reworked each time it wilted. Chromatic, the resulting painting illustrates how Gluck was greatly influenced by Spry’s original arrangement. Constance had an honest appreciation for Gluck’s artwork and a relationship developed between them.Constance Spry and Gluck
Requiring vases that worked practically with the requirements for her floral arrangements Spry tasked her art assistant Florence Standfast to develop wide mouthed bowls to allow for an abundance of blooms and foliage. These initial designs were handmade in papier-mâché and coated in varnish or plaster.
By 1935 a more regular supply of vases was required, and Miss Standfast modelled a range of shapes that could be manufactured commercially. Fulham Pottery employed press-moulding techniques to make the range. The matt surface decoration demanded by Spry was replicated by making the vases in white, filter-pressed, Devon earthenware clay.Spry's Vases
Constance Spry was often engaged to design flower decorations for State visits. In this film Penny Snell, former student of Spry and now Vice-President of the National Gardens Scheme, remembers when they were commissioned to decorate the Covent Garden Opera House for a royal visit from the Shah of Iran, hosted by Queen Elizabeth II.
Workroom at Constance Spry’s Marylebone Road School of Floristry, c.1940, photographer unknown / RHS Lindley Collections
Penny Snell looks back over her time as a student of Constance Spry, including the glamour and excitement of working in Spry’s shop in South Audley Street.
Shop assistant working in the South Audley Street shop in 1947. The shop girls’ grey pinafores were designed by Spry’s friend, the couturier Victor Stiebel.
Whilst Spry didn’t start her business, Flower Decorations Ltd. until 1929 when she was 43 years old, she quickly gathered around her friends, clients and collaborators from the most fashionable artistic circles of the day.
Oliver Messel and Cecil Beaton were both regular attendees at Syrie Maugham the interior designer’s glamorous parties and events. Messel celebrated her ability for ‘creating an atmosphere of delicious charm and comfort and the exquisite flower arrangements concocted by Constance Spry for every occasion made their first appearance in her house.’ Spry soon started to develop close friendships and artistic liaisons with the three of them and other leading lights of the day such as Norman Hartnell, Victor Stiebel, Rex Whistler and Norman Wilkinson.Spry and Cecil Beaton
Constance Spry Inc. shop at 52 East 54th Street, New York, USA. Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries.
"Some time in 1937 I received an invitation to go to New York to give two lectures on flower arrangement for the Women’s Auxiliary of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden…I had yet to learn something about the extreme enthusiasm of American women for their flowers, their gardens, and their houses." - Constance Spry
Constance Spry’s American clients in London had in frequently praised the flower decorator’s skills to their visiting friends. High society events such as Nancy Beaton and Sir Hugh Smiley’s wedding in January 1933 and the marriage of Wallis Simpson to the Duke of Windsor in June 1937 had helped spread Spry’s fame to the US.Spry in America
Bust with a necklace of lilies by Constance Spry, c.1935, photographer unknown / RHS Lindley Collections
By Fiona Davison, Head of Libraries and Exhibitions at RHS Lindley Library
Boxes of papers might not seem an obvious way of capturing a life focussed on such an ephemeral subject as floral arrangement. Nevertheless, this collection carries a lot of clues to the many faces of Constance Spry: entrepreneur, socialite, educator, friend, mother and artist. Even though the images of her work in the archive are largely black and white, the sheer sense of creativity and style that characterised her work still shine through.
Researcher Felicity Hall looks at the wider context of Constance Spry’s career in floristry in 1930s Britain:
What’s in a name?
The world of commercial floristry and floral decorations which Constance Spry entered in 1928, with the opening of her first shop in Belgrave Street, was a fairly recent one. Although flowers had been used for decoration for hundreds of years, it was only in the nineteenth century that flower arrangements became something that could be bought, rather than an activity carried out by the lady of the house or her gardener using flowers from her own garden. The development of British imperial trade with Asia and the Americas from the seventeenth Century onwards had introduced an increasing variety of plants to gardeners at every level of society, which in turn fed into fashions for specific cut flowers.Floristry in 1930s Britain