SPRY, Constance (1886-1960)
Plaque erected in 2012 by English Heritage at 64 South Audley Street, Mayfair, London, W1K 3JP, City of Westminster
CONSTANCE SPRY 1886-1960 Designer in Flowers worked here 1934-1960
Constance Spry is known as one of the most fashionable and revolutionary florists of the 20th century, as well as a successful author and educator. Breaking with the traditional yet dated flower displays of the day, Spry married a horticulturist’s knowledge of plants with an artist’s flair for decoration. Number 64 South Audley Street in the heart of Mayfair was the site of Spry’s shop for over 25 years.
Early Life and Career
Spry was born Constance Fletcher in December 1886, the only daughter and eldest of six children. Due to her father’s successive jobs in teaching, Spry grew up in a number of different homes, living in Devon and Birmingham before moving to Ireland in 1900.
From 1905 until 1908 Spry worked as a lecturer for the Women’s National Health Association in Ireland, which entailed traveling from village to village lecturing on the basic principles of first aid and nursing. She also campaigned against tuberculosis during this period.
In 1910 she married the widower James Heppell Marr and moved to Coolbawn, near Castelcomer; their son Anthony was born in 1912. The marriage didn’t last and after James volunteered for military service in 1914, Spry moved back to Dublin and later to London in 1917.
It was in London, while working at the Inland Revenue, that she met and fell in love with Henry Ernest ‘Shav’ Spry. By 1923 Spry had divorced her husband and set up home with Henry, taking his name even though they never married as he could not bring himself to divorce his wife.
In 1921 she was appointed headmistress of the Homerton and South Hackney Day Continuation School. While she worked in social reform and education, Spry’s interest in flowers and gardening grew, and she started taking on small commissions for dinner tables and parties for friends and colleagues.
Transition to Flower Arranging
In 1927 she received her first large commission from Sidney Bernstein, owner of the Granada Cinema chain. He introduced her to the designer Norman Wilkinson. This proved to be the turning point in her career, for Wilkinson asked her to arrange the flowers for a new branch of Atkinson’s perfumery in Old Bond Street.
Spry decorated the shop with displays of autumn leaves and berries mixed with green orchids, drawing great crowds to the window. This new style was revolutionary. Refusing to be associated with the dated Victorian and Edwardian styles of ‘carnations and asparagus fern’, Spry made a name for herself using all kinds of plant materials. From wild flowers and twigs to moss, fruit and vegetables, she used anything that looked beautiful and suited the occasion.
In 1928 Spry resigned from her job in order to concentrate on her new business. In March 1929 she set up a small shop in Belgrave Road in Pimlico, which she called ‘Flower Decorations’ in order to distinguish it from the run-of-the-mill arrangements supplied by florists. Stock from her own garden was supplemented by flowers from Covent Garden, and Spry recruited a dedicated team to cope with the increasing amount of orders.
Spry’s way of working continued to be unconventional. She scoured junk shops for unusual vases to hold her displays and she insisted that every arrangement should be composed in situ, as opposed to in her shop, so it would fit in perfectly with the surroundings. She challenged the conventonial view of florists, classing her and her staff as artists. She called at the front door rather than the tradesman’s entrance, and in return she offered an impeccable service.
In 1932, when her relationship with Shav ran into problems, she met the gender non-conforming painter Gluck (born Hannah Gluckstein). They were in a relationship for the next four years, and Gluck frequently painted Spry’s flower arrangements, such as in ‘Chromatic’.
As commissions for Spry’s arrangement's flooded in, larger premises were needed. Spry moved to Mayfair to be closer to her society clients and by 1934 had taken on the lease at South Audley Street.
Rise to Fame
The move to her shop in South Audley Street marked her arrival as the most fashionable florist in London. In the same year she published Flower Decoration, the first of her 13 books, and established the Constance Spry Flower School.
One of Spry's most daring displays was the great urns of flowering cow parsley which she used to decorate the wedding of Jo Grimond and Laura Bonham Carter in 1938, confirming the vogue for ‘country weeds’. She counted Edward, the Prince of Wales, as one of her favourite clients and, after his abdication, travelled to France to decorate his wedding to Wallis Simpson in 1937. As a consequence, Spry received no commissions from Buckingham Palace until 1947 when she was asked to supervise the flowers at Princess Elizabeth’s wedding.
The onset of war inevitably meant her business was pared down but Spry kept the shop in the public eye by decorating the sandbags outside it. She turned much of her garden over to growing vegetables and keeping chickens and began to write a cookery book. Come in to the Garden, Cook was published in 1942, and by 1945 Spry had reopened her flower school in partnership with a cookery school run by Rosemary Hume. The two women were to become lifelong friends and went on to co-write The Constance Spry Cook Book (1956), although it was published only under Spry’s name at the insistence of her publishers.
By 1952 Spry received the most important commission of her career, to oversee the floral decorations at the Coronation the following year. This meant not only decorating Westminster Abbey but also the ceremonial route from Buckingham Palace, for which crates of flowers from across the Commonwealth were requested. She persuaded chief designer Eric Bedford and the Minister of Works’ David Eccles to adopt a simple palette of heraldic colours of scarlet, pale blue and gold. Spry also volunteered, alongside Rosemary Hume, to provide lunch for 300 guests, where they devised the famous Coronation Chicken dish.
Spry was appointed OBE in the Coronation honours. On the day she received the honour she was so overwhelmed she escaped Buckingham Palace and took a taxi to her shop at 64 South Audley Street, which was her refuge.
In early January 1960 she suffered a fall at her home at Winkfield Place and died soon after.