Floral Provocateur: Constance Spry and the Fashion for Flowers

by Amy de la Haye on 26 May 2021

Dress historian and curator Amy de la Haye reviews the Garden Museum's latest exhibition, and muses over the fashionable legacy of the floral decorator Constance Spry.

Dress historian and curator Amy de la Haye reviews the Garden Museum's latest exhibition, and muses over the fashionable legacy of the floral decorator Constance Spry.

In the 21st century flower artists have become integral within fashion expression. Azumo Makuto’s installation work has included creating gigantic ice block sculptures containing seemingly floating flowers for Dries Van Noten’s S/S 17 womenswear catwalk show and he has created dramatic rose headwear for Noir Kei Ninomiya; Odile Gilbert has made striking flower headdresses for designers including Rodarte and the late Katsuya Kamo was responsible for the memorable, surreal, face-masking headwear commissioned by Jun Takashi for Undercover. Most recently, Emily Davies, founder of the creative floral design studio Athlyn, was invited by SHOWstudio to create compositional responses to individual designer looks from the S/S 21 London shows.

In 2003, image-maker and SHOWstudio founder Nick Knight and stylist Jonathan Kaye were directly inspired by the floral arrangements of Constance Spry as they interpreted the floral themes of the S/S 03 womenswear collections, culminating in the project By Arrangement. An exhibition has just opened at London’s Garden Museum which showcases the work of this unprecedentedly radical flower decorator, who came to the fore in the early 1930s, when staid floristry was the norm and the term ‘flower decorator’ had not previously been coined.

Chard leaves in a vase, arrangement by Constance Spry, photograph by Reginald Malby c.1935

Dipping garlands of fresh spring flowers into a bucket of white wash is a Jean Cocteau or Martin Margiela-esque creative act that might be deemed radical today; in 1933 it caused a riot. The woman responsible was Constance Spry (1886-1960) whose flower shop, at 64 Audley Street in London’s Mayfair, was situated amidst the city’s most exclusive couture houses. Spry had interpreted the brief from British fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, to provide flowers with a winter fairy tale theme for his sister Nancy’s wedding, with characteristic verve and a nod to surrealism – the art world’s most provocative new movement.

As the bridesmaids trailed the bride and her groom, Sir Hugh Houston Smiley, up the aisle of St Margaret’s in Mayfair – fashionable society’s church of choice – it was flakes of whitewash rather than petals that befell the sacred floor. Outraged, the clergy banned Spry from supplying flowers for a year. Three years earlier they had refused to allow flowers by Constance Spry Ltd. to cross their nave – her work was too subversive at a time when staid floristry was more the norm. It was Spry who created the vogue for combining cultivated blooms with weeds, seed heads, fruit and vegetables; some leaves such as chard were displayed alone. Skeletonised leaves painted using silver or gold leaf and with ribbon bound stems mixed within a bridal bouquet was another signature. By 1933 Spry was the premier international flower decorator, dressing fashionable bodies, interior and exterior spaces; St. Margaret’s were obliged to accommodate her work.

The wedding of Nancy Beaton to Houston Smiley, photograph by James Jarché for the Daily Herald, (14.3 cm x 19.2 cm), 18 January 1933. Cecil Beaton choreographed the event including designing the bride’s gown which is now housed at Brighton Museum but is too fragile to exhibit. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. Given by IPC newspapers Limited, 1971. © Mirrorpix

No doubt, the clergy would have been aghast to learn that Spry was enjoying a love affair with the artist Gluck (born Hannah Gluckstein, 1895) and in 1937 would dress the French château where the decade’s most famous divorcée wed the Duke of Windsor. Following the ceremony, Wallis Simpson sent her personal thanks to Spry in the form of an annotated photographic portrait, taken by Beaton, of herself wearing Schiaparelli’s Dali collaboration - a lobster print evening dress. Spry treasured this token for the rest of her life. It now forms part of the Constance Spry archive, housed at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library, and is on display – along with some one hundred other items – for the first time in the exhibition Constance Spry and the Fashion for Flowers.

Wallis Simpson wearing Schiaparelli’s lobster print dress, a collaboration with the surrealist Salvador Dali, on the day of her marriage to the Duke of Windsor, 1937, © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive / RHS Lindley Collections

Rather than employ an established curator, the museum invited the revered and erudite flower designer Shane Connolly (who provided flowers for Kate Middleton and Prince William’s 2011 wedding). Connolly’s tireless research and imaginative bringing together of objects is expressed in a suitably stylish installation designed by Robin Lucas. The bijoux exhibition includes four paintings by Spry’s lover Gluck. The earliest dates from 1923 and is titled Primavera (Spring) or Flora’s Cloak: Flora is the Roman goddess of flowering plants. At some point during their relationship, which lasted from 1932 to 1936, Spry bought the painting and hung it in the shop where the staff affectionately renamed it Inter-flora.

Spry met Gluck following an order from the architect Edward Maufe for a large white arrangement to celebrate his completion of a new studio for the artist. Entranced by the beauty of the flowers displayed in a Warwick vase (Spry always lent the ‘right’ vessel and went on to design her own for the Fulham Pottery), Gluck embarked upon a portrait, replenishing blooms as they faded. Intrigued, Spry visited the artist and the two started a love affair. Although Gluck was independently wealthy, she had not previously mixed in fashionable circles. Spry introduced Gluck to her clients, including Molly Mount Temple, who regularly ordered flowers for her table that would complement her dinner outfit, and who commissioned Gluck to paint her portrait.

Spry supplied flowers for London’s couture houses and became a close friend of Victor Stiebel, whose all-white Bruton Street salon interior was designed by the modernist interior decorator Syrie Maugham. Many of Stiebel’s press photos present a house mannequin posed next to a Spry flower arrangement. In turn, a model wearing a slinky bias-cut dress by Lanvin would pose in front of Gluck’s painting of the white flowers, titled Chromatic, that had prompted their meeting.

In 1936 Gluck fell in love with Nesta Obermer who she met at one of Mount Temple’s legendary dinners and ended the relationship with Spry. We don’t know how Spry felt about this, but it is evident that her profound influence on Gluck’s work endured. Spry went on to enjoy an immensely successful career which included opening a floristry school, a domestic science school with her friend, the cook Rosemary Hume, she published thirteen books and provided flowers for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth ll.

The exhibition is a fine and fascinating tribute to the life, work and legacy of this unassuming yet tenacious woman - the extraordinarily original flower decorator Constance Spry.

Constance Spry and the Fashion for Flowers is at London’s Garden Museum, 17 May - 26 September 2021. Tickets can be pre-booked here.

Tear sheet from The Bystander 30 November, 1932. ‘Society beauty’ Miss Elizabeth Jenns, models a green velvet dress by Lanvin, in the all-white Gluck Room at The Fine Art Society. She is posed in front of Gluck’s painting 'Chromatic', which is a portrait of a flower composition by Constance Spry. Author’s research photograph from the (private) Gluck Archive.
Installation shot, 'Constance Spry and the Fashion for Flowers', the Garden Museum, London. The design of this gallery references Constance Spry Ltd, the shop at 64 Audley Street. On display are a number of the vessels that Spry designed for Fulham Pottery (they were sold unpainted so that the buyer could paint them to match their interior) and her lover Gluck’s painting 'Primavera' which Spry bought and hung in the shop. Author's photograph.


Image Gallery

Editorial Gallery: By Arrangement

19 May 2020
Inspired by photographs of the mannered floral arrangements of Constance Spry, Nick Knight teamed up with Jonathan Kaye and a stellar team to capture the feminine fashions of S/S 04 for W magazine.

Video: Roses From My Garden

04 July 2020
Nick Knight explains the process behind his on-going series of roses shot on his iPhone, and creating a new language for image-making.
Illustration Gallery

Illustration Gallery: Matty Bovan S/S 21 Womenswear

19 September 2020
Matty Bovan S/S 21 womenswear fashion illustration by Stella Im Hultberg.
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