Constance Spry (1886-1960)

Born: Constance Fletcher; also known as Constance Marr

Sector: Household Goods

You may never have heard of Constance Spry but you will almost certainly have heard of, and possibly eaten, one thing she had a hand in inventing: Coronation Chicken. This, and the publication of her eponymous Cook Book have sometimes resulted in her being more strongly associated with food than flowers but this energetic, original woman thought of herself first and foremost as a gardener. Her innovative, radical floral arrangements made her an overnight sensation in the late 1920s and a global celebrity in the 1950s and she has changed the way that flowers are arranged forever.

Like Gertrude Jekyll, the ephemeral nature of Constance’s creations and the relatively small number of images in colour or in context have meant her artistry has been under-appreciated and under-valued. As recently as 2004, the decision by the director of the Design Museum, Alice Rawsthorn, to stage a show celebrating her work caused James Dyson to resign as Chair, furious that ‘shallow styling’ was being valued over ‘serious, technical things’, while Terence Conran, the museum’s founder, raged at the thought of celebrating ‘high-society mimsiness’. Constance would have been staggered that her work was igniting such passionate debate seventy years after the publication of her landmark book, ‘Flower Decoration’ but more concerned about the ‘high society’ label. She came from modest beginnings, spent the first half of her life working in poor communities and wanted flowers and gardens to be accessible to all, for the joy and peace they offered.

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Early life and first career
Born on 5th December 1886, Constance was the eldest of six children and the only girl.  The last place she lived, a large Georgian manor in Berkshire, was a world away from the first, a small terraced house in Derby.  Her father, George, had left school at fourteen and worked for the Midland Railway Company but determinedly pursued a path of self-education and was eventually invited to join the staff of the establishment where he had been studying, Derby Technical College.   By 1891 he had become the headmaster. A role at the Department of Education followed, which meant moves to Plymouth and then Birmingham as George’s responsibilities grew. This was a relief to Constance’s mother, Henrietta, known as Etty, a socially ambitious women, with whom Constance had a difficult relationship.

In 1901, when Constance was fourteen, the family moved to Ireland and she completed her education at Kate Meyrick’s alma mater, Alexandra College. She was already providing floral arrangements for friends’ mothers’ dinner parties but this was very much a hobby and when it came to making a decision about getting a ‘real’ job, the area she landed in was health education: how much of that choice was Constance’s and how much her father’s is not clear. In 1905 Constance started her training in Dublin, continuing it in London, and by 1907 she was in her first job, employed by London County Council as a lecturer on health and first aid.

Back in Ireland, George Fletcher had built a successful working relationship with Ishbel, Countess of Aberdeen, whose husband was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1905. She set up the Women’s National Health Association of Ireland in 1907 to improve the health of women and children and soon needed paid staff. Constance returned to Ireland for a full-time lecturing job, where practical demonstrations were an important part of the sessions.

Marquess and Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair
by Bain News Service. Bromide print, circa 1910-1915
NPG x197887© National Portrait Gallery, London

It was on one of her lecturing visits in April 1910 that Constance met James Heppell Marr, the manager of a mine in Castle Comer and a widower with a six-year old daughter, Joan.  Seven months later, on 10th November 1910, they married.  Constance carried a sheaf of white lilies and wore a wreath of orange blossoms and myrtle in her hair. Her lace veil was a gift from the Countess of Aberdeen. Booterstown Church was ‘exquisitely decorated’ with autumn foliage, chrysanthemums, palms and arches of smilax. At the reception, Lord Aberdeen spoke about Constance’s work and the deep esteem and affection he and his wife felt for her before they sent Constance and her husband off on their honeymoon to Alastrean House, their home in Aberdeenshire (then known as the House of Cromar).

It was not a happy union and the arrival of a son, Anthony, in 1912, did not bring them closer together. The outbreak of war offered a release. James signed up and Constance went back to Dublin to work for Lady Aberdeen. She was still there in 1916 during the Easter Rising, winning a St John silver medal for her organisation of the Red Cross’s response. She later said that in her lifetime she had lived through three wars.

The return to England
Later that year, Constance saw an advertisement for a job as a welfare supervisor at the Vickers armaments factories in Barrow-in-Furness. She applied, was successful and set off for England taking Anthony with her.   Within nine months she had been moved to a role at the Ministry of Munitions in London.  Her boss was a man called Henry ‘Shav’ Spry, also married, with two children. He had been seconded from the Indian Civil Service in 1914 and had to do two more years in India to qualify for his pension. While he was away, Constance took a new job at the Inland Revenue and initiated divorce proceedings.

When in 1921, an opportunity came up to return to the world of education, Constance grabbed it. She was appointed head of the new Homerton and South Hackney Day Continuation School in east London. Set up by London County Council, these schools were designed to provide vocational courses for 14-16 year olds and as well as running the school, Constance taught classes in cookery and flower arranging.   In 1923, Shav returned from India.  By now Constance had secured her divorce but Shav did, or could, not do the same so Constance changed her name to Spry and they presented themselves to society as a married couple.

Throughout this entire period, wherever she had been living, Constance had maintained a garden. Her influences included CW Earle’s ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’, with its chapter on flower arrangement and, of course, Gertrude Jekyll. She owned a copy of Jekyll’s 1907 book, ‘Flower Decoration in the House’, and subscribed to some of Jekyll’s core philosophies: consider the room first, particularly with regard to colour; use flowers from the garden as well as twigs from the wood and branches from the hedgerow; good room decoration can be done with foliage only.  She loved 17th century Dutch still life paintings and drew on all of these influences to create innovative decorations, sometimes on pedestals, sometimes in pie dishes. Her friends from her days at the Ministry knew of Constance’s skills and she soon had a side hustle going providing arrangements for parties and dinners.

And so things might have continued. But one weekend, Constance’s friend Marjorie Russell came to visit bringing a friend and kicked off a chain of events that would change the course of Constance’s life.

The second career
The friend was Sidney Bernstein, owner of the Granada cinema chain.  He loved what he saw of Cosntance’s floral designs on his visit and invited Constance to a lunch in London where one of the other guests was Norman Wilkinson, a theatrical designer. Wilkinson was in the middle of a commission to design the shop for Atkinsons, a perfumery firm that was moving into a stunning new building on the corner of Old Bond Street and Burlington Street (which today houses a branch of Ferragamo). Wilkinson wanted spectacular floral displays in the four large windows and thought Constance should provide them. Bernstein said that if she agreed, he would give her some business supplying plants to his cinema foyers. After thinking long and hard for a year, Constance resigned from the school in the summer of 1928, at the age of 42, she opened ‘Flower Decorations’ and embraced her new career.

Creative and commercial partnerships
Wilkinson was an important mentor to her during this period. They shared a love of gardening and flower growing. He was an inveterate collector of bric-a-brac and Constance raided his collection for large and unusual urns and vases. Most important, Wilkinson was clear about his vision for Atkinsons, which was to show off flowers which reflected the old herbals of perfumeries and encouraged Constance to exercise all her skill, knowledge and imagination. His confidence was more than repaid: Constance’s large-scale installations, largely using hedgerow flowers, brought traffic to a standstill. 

Through Norman Wilkinson, Constance was introduced to a new circle of artists and designers.  They included Cecil Beaton, dress designers Victor Siebel and Norman Hartnell (shown here with what looks like a classic Constance Spry creation in the background), theatrical designer Oliver Messel, artist Rex Whistler and architect Oliver Hill.  Her most important new friend was Syrie Maugham (1879-1955).  Constance convinced Syrie that floral arrangements in shades of white, cream and green perfectly complemented Syrie’s pale decorative schemes. They collaborated on a number of influential projects and in surviving photographs we see Constance applying her core tenets: consider the room; enhance the intrinsic beauty of the building; distract, don’t cover up.

A Syrie Maugham entrance hall for with interior architecture by Robert Lutyens and floral arrangements by Constance Spry.

A key patron was Molly Ashley, later Lady Mount Temple and Edwina Mountbatten’s step-mother.  Allegedly the first woman in London to wear coloured nail polish, Oliver Hill turned her London house into an art deco mirror box and Constance’s arrangements completed the look. Weekend dinners at her country home, Broadlands, attracted an eclectic crowd who saw and admired the work of Constance and her growing team and the word spread.

Society weddings were also important brand building opportunities. An early breakthrough came with the commission to do the flowers for the marriage of Mary Lutyens, daughter of Edwin and Lady Emily, at St Margaret’s, Westminster, in 1930. This finally got her onto the ‘approved supplier’ list for the key London churches though some of her innovations got her into trouble. Working with Cecil Beaton to make real his designs for the wedding of his sister Nancy to Sir Hugh Smiley, she white-washed the garlands of flowers that linked the bridesmaids. The effect was stunning but left paint flakes scattered across the stone floor and Constance spent a year in the sin bin.

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Booming business, fragile finances
When Constance got her ‘big break’ in 1928, she had great skill and a lot of experience of leading teams but lacked commercial experience. It was only in 1931 that Shav, who had re-trained as an accountant on his return from India, looked through the books in detail. It was soon clear that while the bread and butter business of selling cut flowers and standard arrangement was profitable, bigger, more elaborate jobs that involved travel or regular upkeep were being priced too low. Constance was also prone to adding an additional expensive flower to an arrangement if she thought it needed it, regardless of the impact on the margin.

While the shop’s location in Pimlico was cheap, it was out of the way, resulting in longer journey times to Mayfair clients, less passing trade and reduced pricing power. At around this time, the site next to Atkinson’s fell vacant. Since there was not shortage of demand for Constance’s work, Shav backed her in making this critical move to a larger, more prestigious location despite the steep hike in rent. With more discipline in place, some equilibrium was re-established and Constance was soon adding to her team to cope with the all the demand. Victor Stiebel, whose nearby fashion house Syrie Maugham had decorated and for which Constance supplied the flowers, designed their uniforms.

Private lives
Constance was a generous host, frequently inviting her colleagues out to her home in Surrey. A woman she had hired in 1929, Val Pirie, quickly became her right hand and was a frequent visitor. In early 1932, she and Shav started an affair. Constance, now an unwilling member of a ménage à trois which affected both her personal and professional life, soon found solace elsewhere. Up in Hampstead, the artist Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck (1895-1978), had just had a new studio built by Edward Maufe. She had a keen interest in flowers, seen in her 1923 work, ‘Flora’s Cloak’ so Prudence Maufe, who had already started putting Constance’s floral arrangements alongside Gluck’s paintings in the show flat she ran in Heal’s, arranged for a ‘Mixed Bunch’ of white flowers from Flower Decorations as a studio-warming gift. ‘I think she has a genius for flowers and you have a genius for paint, so that ought to make for happiness.’

Val Pirie did the original arrangement and Gluck decided to paint it. The flowers had to be re-freshed week after week and eventually Constance decided to make the delivery herself.  Prudence’s prediction was more accurate than she had perhaps realised and the two women were soon in an intense relationship, which lasted until 1936. The painting that resulted from this first encounter, Chromatic, formed the centrepiece of Gluck’s show at the Fine Arts Society later that year and Constance featured it in her first book two years later as exemplifying ‘the delicacy and the strength, the subtleties and the grandeur of white flowers.’

Formal floral arrangements became a strong theme of Gluck’s work during this period as she immortalised Constance’s creations. Constance introduced her to new buyers and her work became the centrepiece of rooms designed by Oliver Hill and Syrie Maugham. They holidayed together in Tunisia and spent weekends at Constance’s house. Sometimes Shav was there. Whether or not Val was also there is unclear. The affair between Gluck and Constance ended in 1936 but Val and Shav eventually married in 1962, two years after Constance’s death.

The eventful year of 1934
In 1934, Constance returned to the world of education when she opened the Constance Spry Flower School on Curzon Street. By now she was employing around 70 people. A profile in Britannia and Eve in March 1934 showcased a number of arrangements, including one on Gluck’s mantelpiece and one for Syrie’s Maugham’s dinner table. In August, she published her first book, ‘Flower Decoration’, to glowing reviews. Much of Constance’s work was done for high society, wealthy clients: they were the ones with the budgets. But Constance was no snob. She wanted her book to be relevant to everyone, whether they were working with flowers from a purpose-designed cutting garden or buttercups from the side of the road. With barely anything written on flower arranging for the last thirty years, Constance’s practical and instructive book was a breath of fresh air, with no knowledge assumed but still much to offer to those with more experience. ‘Mrs Spry’s book is for everyone.. delightful and fascinating’ reported the Sunday Mirror. ‘Rhubarb and spurge, the green flowers of the garden onion, the seed heads of poppies and seakale, lichen-covered branches, wild arum, deadly nightshade, gourds, marrows and sprays of tomatoes – to the seeing eye all these things have decorative value’ reported the Yorkshire Post. With plenty of illustrations the verdict was clear cut: ‘Mrs Spry is an artist. Her flower arrangements have all the perfection of little masterpieces’, concluded the Tatler. Constance rounded off a momentous year by making her final move, to 64 South Audley Street.

Royal engagements
1934 had also brought Constance her first royal customer, the Duke of Kent. Her first high-profile royal commission quickly followed in 1935 with the flowers for the bouquets of bride and bridesmaids for the wedding of the Duke of Gloucester to Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott. But it was due to the Prince of Wales that Constance would make news. He and Wallis Simpson were both regular clients and when he asked Constance to do the flowers for his wedding to Wallis Simpson in 1937, Constance did not hesitate. Cecil Beaton, who was there to take the photographs, remembered her ‘robin-like in a picture hat and overalls’, working with Val to decorate the whole chateau with ‘magnificent mountains’ of flowers. She was one of only twenty or so witnesses to one of the least seen but most discussed Royal weddings of the century.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor on their wedding day

In 1938, Constance embarked on a tour of the United States, lecturing on her approach to floral design and appearing on radio and TV. American fans backed her in opening a retail store in New York, offering to set up a company in which she would have shares and a percentage of the profits. In exchange, she gave the right to use her name. Perhaps if war had not broken out a year later, it would have been a success but instead she, like Lucy Duff Gordon before her, gave away rights to an asset that would only increase in value.

To war again
When war broke out Val went to work in France for the Red Cross giving Constance welcome time alone with Shav. Now 53, she vowed to carry on trading, determined to continue providing a bit of normality, even when she arrived to find the windows shattered and the floor deep in water. She travelled around the country lecturing, constantly seeking to dispel the myth that her adopting her style required money and a willingness to follow rules. For Constance, it was quite the contrary: she felt flower offered freedom: to express individual taste and to break with convention, regardless of budget. She made her first venture into cookery writing, publishing the fourth of her thirteen books, ‘Come Into the Garden, Cook’, to inspire those trying to feed their families in a time of rationing. She had six years to reconnect with the space she had spent the first twenty years of her working life and she clearly found it fulfilling, for when the war ended she carried on moving in that direction. In 1946, she proposed a partnership to Rosemary Hume, a Cordon Blue-trained chef and schoolfriend of Val Pirie’s. Constance planned to re-start her Flower School in Victoria and suggested Rosemary run a cookery school alongside it. And she wanted to set up a ‘starting school’ as opposed to a finishing school, in a place in the countryside where residential courses could be offered, one of the most important subjects being cookery, to be led by Rosemary. The house Constance found was Winkfield Place, just outside Windsor and a final chapter began.

A final decade of fame
Constance provided the flowers in Westminster Abbey for the wedding of HRH Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten in 1947 but it was her role in the Coronation celebrations of 1953 that would ultimately influence the contents of supermarket chiller units across the land. The Minister of Works, David Eccles, asked her to design the flowers for the processional route, to create a feeling of excitement and celebration in which everyone could participate. As the ceremony drew near, another challenge presented itself: providing lunch for the 300 plus relations of Crowned heads and Presidential representatives who would be attending when the hotels and all the usual catering firms were fully booked? Constance and Rosemary stepped in, finding a location, calling on their students to cook and waitress and designing a menu most of which could be served cold. The main dish, created by Rosemary was Chicken Elizabeth, now known as Coronation Chicken. For all her work, Constance was awarded an OBE in the Coronation Honours list.

Constance remained busy throughout the 1950s, running her flower business and schools, travelling around the world to give lectures and writing more books including The Constance Spry Cookbook in 1956, on which she collaborated with Rosemary Hume. On 3rd January 1960, Constance was at Winkfield and heading upstairs after dinner when she stumbled and lost consciousness. She died an hour later. She was 73. The businesses she established continued for many year after her death, keeping her name alive for a new generation.

The tributes paid to her then, and since, have been many. As one person said: ‘All of us are richer if only because she made it acceptable to to prefer a daisy to the pompous bloom, to use a tureen instead of cut glass, to follow our hearts instead of set rules.’ From a more hard-nosed, economic perspective, floristry in the UK is a billion pound industry where professionals like Shane Connolly and Philippa Craddock have global reach and there is not doubt that Constance Spry played a role in that. So much for ‘high-society mimsiness’.

If you are interested in Gluck, do watch this seven minute film by Philip Mould, which explores her work. For more on Constance’s life and work, you can view this online exhibition from the Garden Museum.

Sources include:

The Wicklow Newsletter and Arklow Reporter 12/11/1910; Britannia and Eve 01/03/1934; Sunday Mirror 5/8/1934; The Yorkshire Post 5/9/1934; The Tatler 5/9/1934; The Telegraph 6/1/1960; 2/4/1960; The Observer 3/10/2004.

‘Flower Decoration’ by Constance Spry (1934) with preface by Michele Tucker (1993 reissue); ‘Flowers in House and Garden’ by Constance Spry (1937); ‘Summer and Autumn Flowers’ by Constance Spry (1951); ‘How to do the Flowers’ by Constance Spry (1953); ‘The Constance Spry Cookbook’ by Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume (1956); ‘Hostess’ by Constance Spry ed. Anthony Marr (1961)

‘Constance Spry’ by Elizabeth Coxhead (1975); ‘The Surprising Life of Constance Spry’ by Sue Shepherd (2010); Syrie. Maugham: Staging Glamorous Interiors by Pauline C. Metcalf (2010); ‘Gluck: Her Biography’ by Diana Souhami (2013); ‘Gluck: Art and Identity’ ed. Amy de lay Haye and Martin Pel (2017); ‘Baroque Between the Wars’ by Jane Stevenson (2018).

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