How Flower Arrangement Became an Art Form Thanks to Constance Spry’s Unique View of the Natural World


It’s not exactly a story of misery to wealth, but Constance Spry, the daughter of a railroad worker, rose to the top of society through commerce and art. An exhibition at the Garden Museum in London of around 100 photographs, personal items and artefacts – never before exhibited – will tell the story of one of the most colorful and influential florists of the 20th century.

Spry was trained in bacteriology and sanitary inspection, but in 1921 she became principal of a day school in Hackney, London, where poverty and deprivation were rife. Therefore, his real trade came late. It wasn’t until her early forties that Spry gave up teaching and opened a boutique, called Flower Decoration, in 1929. Her first official patron was Granada Cinemas, but it was her daring hedge flower arrangements in the showcase of the royal perfumer Atkinsons. of New Bond Street that caught the attention of passers-by.

Constance Spry pictured in the early 1940s scraping mud from her shoes RHS Lindley Collections

Spry’s business quickly took off and after seven years she employed 70 assistants and was forced to move to new premises in South Audley Street. Customers demanded flair and originality, so Spry turned to 17th-century Dutch artists, teaching them to include fruits and even vegetables in his arrangements.

In an effort to integrate her work into trendy interior design, Spry used unusual accessories, including wire containers and neo-classical columns. Old vessels were always hard to find, so she designed her own vases in opaque black or white. These were made by Fulham Pottery in an archaic Greek taste but were, by default, a late expression of the Art Deco style.

Flora’s coat (circa 1923), which Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein) gave to his lover, Constance Spry © Tate Images

Finally, the aesthetic roles turned and it was not Spry who was inspired by the art, but the reverse. In 1932, it was presented to the painter Hannah Gluckstein, still known as “Gluck”. The women quickly developed a romantic friendship, and, inspired by Spry’s work, Gluck immortalized a number of his arrangements in surprisingly formal still lifes. As a personal tribute to Spry’s art, Gluck presented her with a painting titled Flora Cape in which an ecstatic and androgynous nude with flame yellow hair appears on a cloud of delicate pink and white daisies. The couple’s relationship only lasted four years, and Gluck, ever aware of the ephemeral and mortality, seemed to anticipate its end with a painting comprised of serene leaves, flowers and dried seed heads. She called him Dead group.

Spry pioneered the use of unusual plant materials, such as these Swiss chard leaves, in her arrangements. Photo: Reginald Malby; © RHS Lindley Collections

Eleven years after starting his business, Spry made a very public demonstration of his sources in a “new and successful” exhibition at the Cooling Gallery on Bond Street in 1939. To mark the date, it included 39 floral studies, including two by the French painter. Henri Fantin-Latour and Spry reflected them with his own work. According to Time journal, his arrangements blur the lines between reality and illusion.

With a vigorous advertising campaign and numerous books on flower arranging, Spry’s business was on a roll. In 1935 he was asked to arrange the flowers for the Duke of Gloucester’s wedding to Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott. Only two years later, she was working on the wedding flowers for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. However, his greatest honor came in 1953 when he was asked to decorate the annex of Westminster Abbey for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. This earned him an OBE.

A thank you note sent to Spry in 1937 by the Duchess of Windsor Wallis Simpson © The archives of the Cecil Beaton studio; RHS Lindley Collections

Just seven years after that, Spry’s business, perhaps too successful for its own good, was unable to maintain its exacting standards and, like its founder, was in decline. In 1960, Spry fell down the stairs and died shortly thereafter. She was 74 years old. His last words would have been “someone else can fix this”.

• Constance Spry and flower fashion, Garden Museum, London, May 17-September 26


Rosalie M. Dehner