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The Constance Spry Archive at the RHS Lindley Library

By Fiona Davison, Head of Libraries and Exhibitions at RHS Lindley Library

We are delighted to have been able to lend material from the RHS Lindley Library’s Constance Spry archive collection for this landmark exhibition at the Garden Museum.  The archive has been available for researchers to study at the RHS Lindley Library for a number of years, but this is the first time large parts of it have been on public display. The collection is made up of thousands of items including photographs, letters, cards, scrapbooks, leaflets and books and even some plaster moulds for vases designed by Constance Spry.

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. This is particularly apparent when you compare her arrangements, which include an eclectic range of wild and cultivated plants, from cow parsley to kale, with the stiff, uniform arrangements in earlier manuals on floristry in our collection. Some of my personal favourites are the playful floral crowns and necklaces displayed on Victorian statues.

Bust with a necklace of lilies by Constance Spry, c.1935, photographer unknown / RHS Lindley Collections
Cecil Beaton, Wallis Simpson in a Schiaparelli dress on her wedding day, with note to Constance Spry, 3 June 1937, ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

The collection is an important source for anyone wanting to understand the life and times of Constance Spry. Highlights include hand-annotated photographs of her arrangements, thank you cards from grateful clients and informal family photographs of Constance at home and in the garden. Although she did not start her professional career in floristry until the age of 41, her originality rapidly gained her high profile commissions from high society and royal patrons. One of the most notable was to provide the flowers and floral decorations for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the collection includes a thank you note from Wallis Simpson.

The collection came to the RHS as a number of donations from Constance Spry’s daughter in law and friends, and from the purchasers of the Spry trademark. It is a large and complex collection which was documented by the Library in 2015 in the form of a summary description, known as a survey list. The survey list enables access to the Spry archive and is available online via the Archives Hub and Archives Portal Europe.

However, there is still a lot of work to do to conserve, research and catalogue the archive to the extent that it deserves. Ideally we would like to catalogue and digitise each individual item. In particular, there is a lot of work to do to track down the copyright holders of a lot of the material in the archive and do the necessary work to gain permission to reproduce photographs and documents. We hope that this partnership with the Garden Museum will help to raise the profile of this collection as an important step to fundraising to support this work.

In the meantime, we have digitised a selection of items from the collection and these can be viewed here: Constance Spry Archive

Spry scraping mud off her shoes, c.1942, photographer unknown / RHS Lindley Collections

Anyone is welcome to register as a researcher to consult the archive at the RHS Lindley Library. Details of how to do this are on the RHS website.

The archive of Constance Spry is only one of many archives of key figures in the story of British gardening that have been entrusted to the RHS. If you would like to find out more about our work to uncover and share their stories, you can sign up to our e-newsletter or follow us on social media:

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Other Lindley Library archive catalogues are available via the Archives Hub