October 18, 2013 7:15 pm

Surprising arrangements: the influence of Constance Spry

‘Constance Spry broke artistic boundaries by mixing hedgerow flowers and formal flowers in one and the same arrangement’
Constance Spry, arranging white flowers, with fashion designer Hardy Amies in 1960©Getty

Constance Spry with fashion designer Hardy Amies in 1960

As the frosts loom, I have been picking every flower in sight so as to save them indoors. The last of the dahlias are crammed in with the penstemons, the salvias and a late flurry of steely blue monkshood. Michaelmas daises have been in every room. I have no formal training but flower arranging fascinates me. I cram in whatever I can find, using yet more flowers to get me out of tight corners.

Behind my last-minute arrangements looms the face of a very famous brand, the woman who first showed me that flower-arranging was not only for the Japanese and who first terrified me in my efforts to cook. Last month, on September 26, I nearly drove off the road in shock. There she was on BBC Woman’s Hour, Constance Spry herself, speaking crisply on the car radio as if from beyond the grave. “Let your inhibitions go a little . . . if in doubt, ladies, leave it out . . .” I felt ashamed of my own counter-principle, “if in doubt put it all in”. I thought of Spry’s trademarks, those fluted vases in plaster-white which baffled me as a boy and which still baffled me when I engaged a few Christmases ago in a flower-arranging session with Kitty Arden, the London professional who once arranged the flowers for Paul McCartney’s wedding to Heather Mills. My word, those vases were difficult, and even more so in the years before the invention of Oasis, the fixative which is one of the great additions to homely living in the past fifty years. Spry’s iconic vases were shallow and long, supporting little and often holding less. How she would hate the new corporate style of flower arrangements, burgeoning, overflowing and more heavily built-up than a Dutch old master painting. In hotel halls and at receptions, for weddings and anniversaries, in come the modern arrangers and defy everything which Constance Spry once preached.

I am no longer so sure about “everything”. In 1956, Spry published a big rose-red bible, The Constance Spry Cookery Book. When it was a case of my starving or learning to cook, I turned to consult her on how to cook scrambled eggs. After a metaphysical discussion on whether or not they are “buttered” eggs, she made their presence in the pan sound so tricky that I turned to iced coffee instead. No luck there, either: “one of the devastatingly simple things so difficult to make”. Modern foodies are just as daunting. I ended up with her poulet a l’orange but came unstuck with her habit of measuring the wine and stock in “gills”.

In 2010, Sue Shephard of the BBC took the lid off the pressure-cooker and published a superb biography, The Surprising Life Of Constance Spry . Surprising it certainly is. On BBC Woman’s Hour, Jenni Murray revisited the question of Spry’s sham marriage and the lesbian relationships which were the storm-centre of her triangular life. “Surely you sensed something?” she asked a former lady employee in Spry’s London office. “Mrs Spry was very well-connected,” the lady replied, remarking that she had only worked on the lower floor. When Murray pressed her again, she obliged with one of the great lines of recent radio. “If you went into her office, you soon caught a whiff of it.”

Did the sexuality relate to the flower-arranging, those bowls of stripped stems and Alba arrangements, showing nothing but virginal white flowers in vases which were waxy-white too? The timeline is certainly a surprise. Constance Spry seemed a postwar figure to me, at her zenith in the 1950s when her cookery school, Winkfield, catered for debutantes who needed to cook before they married. By the time she became my awesome icon, she had been at it all for so long. Her first flower shop, Flower Decoration, had opened in 1924. In 1929 she had already stunned London by showing old man’s beard and hops from a country hedgerow in a window in Old Bond Street among green orchids and red-brown leaves. By 1936 she was having a love affair with the painter Hannah Gluckstein and employing 70 people in her flowershop. Val Pirie, the lady who ran it, was having an affair with “Shav” Spry, the “husband” whom Constance never actually married because he had never divorced his first wife.

Two Rosa Constance Spry flowers©Alamy

Rosa Constance Spry

I thought, too, of my other floral icon, Vita Sackville-West. By the time she wrote her superb articles on gardening in the 1950s her garden at Sissinghurst was already twenty years old. Although Vita was indeed married, she too was a passionate lover of women. She too went in for all-white. At Sissinghurst Castle she planted the White Garden which remains such a heavenly sight on a June evening. Historians have argued whether she owed the idea to Gertrude Jekyll who also had white borders in Surrey. I do not think she did, but what about Jekyll too? To say the least, “she never married”. Were white flowers and gardens what white carnations once were to Oscar Wilde? For the past fortnight, Storm In A Flower Vase has been running in London’s Arts Theatre. It is a thoughtful dramatisation by Anton Burge of Constance Spry’s life when she first found a female lover. It has been excellently acted and the vases and the Spry arrangements have been brilliant. It has warned me not to reduce someone’s style to psychosexual impulses. Spry came from a modest family. The clear, confident training-voice which echoed recently on the radio was an extension of her early years as a headmistress in east London. She had taught flower-arranging, dressmaking and cookery. When she began her shop she had to continue to set fashions in it. “The next big thing” ruled her life. By the 1930s all-white flowers were merely the latest of her fashions. At the time the interior decorator Syrie Maugham was setting London abuzz with her all-white drawing rooms. She was lesbian too and Spry’s close friend, but Spry’s minimalism and Alba arrangements were styles which she adopted to keep ahead in a highly competitive market. In 2004 Constance Spry was the subject of an exhibition at London’s Design Museum. The style king, Terence Conran, dismissed her as a peddler of “high society mimsiness”. He was unfair. Flower arranging is an art, no more transitory than a modern art “happening” or the seats on my Habitat chairs. Spry broke artistic boundaries by mixing hedgerow flowers and formal flowers in one and the same arrangement. She had an excellent eye and was the must-have arranger in London for more than 30 years. Green and white flowers, hedgerow-flowers and orchids and even my blue monkshoods found a place in her varied repertoire. She was a one-woman brand, backed by the excellent Rosemary Hume, the force behind the cookbook’s recipes.

In their honour I have just been back to the chapter they called “Winkfield” in their cooking bible. It is a mélange of recipes which they taught to the debs on long afternoons. I have tried Braised Lettuces In A Cream Sauce and I am not going there again. I must speak up for Lapin a la Bressane. It is rabbit with bacon, cream, vinegar, onions and so forth, but the rabbits catch the eye. “The rabbits should be a domestic one. They may be bought under the name of Ostend rabbit.” Did any of you ever eat an Ostend rabbit? Hearing all we now do about Spry, I cannot help paraphrasing the Liberal politician Jeremy Thorpe’s notorious letter to his boyfriend in the mid-1970s. “Bunnies can and will go to Ostend.”

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Letter in response to this column:

Oscar Wilde’s command was for green carnations / From Mr John Neill

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