The Surprising Life of Constance Spry, by Sue Shephard, Macmillan £18.99, 256 pages, FT Bookshop price: £15.99
Constance Spry, the world’s most famous flower-arranger, died in 1960 but her influence lingers. The flower arranging clubs and competitions that blossomed from the 1950s onwards were given a kick-start because of Spry, although, as author Sue Shephard shows us in this new biography, Spry herself wasn’t happy about such regimented displays. “She would cry with great vehemence …‘Just be natural and let the rules go to hell!’”
Born in the back streets of Derby in 1886, Connie Fletcher had a dynamic autodidact of a father, who rose to be a senior figure in education. Moving to Ireland, she became a noted health lecturer, married a widowed mine manager, took on his daughter, and had a son, Anthony. She then left her husband and returned to England, where she worked for the Ministry of Munitions during the first world war – and met Shav Spry, who was already married. It seems the couple never married, but Constance took Spry’s name.
The flowers happened almost by accident. As a keen gardener and floral arranger, Spry was working as a headteacher when people began asking her to do flowers for social occasions. And so began her second career. Spry did the flowers for the quiet wedding in 1937 of Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor (both were her clients). This rather blotted her royal copybook until she made a triumphant comeback with Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. And, as if that weren’t enough, Spry and her business partner, the cook Rosemary Hume, catered for 350 at the post-coronation luncheon: coronation chicken was duly devised and served to the delighted dignitaries, and another craze was born.
Spry’s life was relentless, sociable and fascinating, but Shephard’s biography doesn’t edit the melée for the reader. Instead, a vast parade of characters is presented – simply too many to take in – and with few direct quotes or letter extracts. Surely educated mid-century people wrote to each other all the time.
Spry’s story is compelling, but, like a big vase of unruly blooms, this book could have benefited from some pruning.
Isabel Berwick is associate editor of Life & Arts