Constance Spry: A Fashion For Flowers

This Garden Museum summer exhibition, all about Constance Spry’s exceptional life and legacy, was guest curated by floral designer Shane Connolly. He reflects on what it was like to switch from weddings to exhibitions (much harder he says!) and shares his highlights.

Constance Spry’s exceptional life and legacy

This summer the Garden Museum celebrated the 20th century’s most influential floral decorator, Constance Spry with an exhibition, guest curated by floral designer, Shane Connolly. Constance Spry: A Fashion for Flowers closes this Sunday and we urge you to catch it if you can, especially if you are in town to visit the Chelsea Flower Show.

Constance Spry opened her first flower shop in 1929

Constance Spry opened her first flower shop in 1929. Her revolutionary approach to floristry, pairing unusual plants like kale and pussy willow with more classic flowers, resulted in her becoming the go-to florist for high society weddings and events, including the Wedding of Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson and, in 1953, stage managing the design of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. She also, rather wonderfully, invented the recipe for Coronation chicken!

Wedding of Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson and, in 1953

She was a huge believer in bringing flowers to the masses, which her unconventional approach to floristry, foraging from hedgerows, and using jam jars and other household containers as vases, allowed. Throughout her long successful career, Spry opened a floristry school, a domestic science school, and published thirteen books. This exhibition has exclusive access to Spry's archive at the RHS Lindley Library, and manages to encapsulate all of Spry's industry in an exquisite time capsule, almost like stepping into an Agatha Christie novel.

Spry's focus on the seasonal, the wild, and no rules remains a huge influence on floral designers today

'Do whatever you please. Follow your own star: be original if you want to be and don't if you don't want to be. Just be natural and gay and light-hearted and pretty and simple and overflowing and general and baroque and bare and austere and stylized and wild and daring and conservative. And learn and learn and learn. Open your mind to every form of beauty.' Constance Spry.

Spry's focus on the seasonal, the wild, and no rules remains a huge influence on floral designers today, Willow included. We asked Shane why he decided to curate this exhibition, why Spry is such an inspiration to him, and what it was like to switch from weddings to art curation!

What gave you the idea to do this exhibition?

I have long admired Constance Spry and have been strongly influenced by her all through my career. She was a remarkable person, and achieved so much at a time when women were not encouraged to achieve anything at all.

There was an exhibition about her in 2004, in the Design Museum, which was notable mostly for the resignation of its trustees, James Dyson and Terence Conran, in protest that an exhibition should be devoted to her “middle class, bourgeoisie mumsieness.”
So when Christopher Woodward, the director of the Garden Museum suggested an exhibition about her a few years ago, I seized the opportunity with both hands. A chance to rectify these ridiculous, sexist, remarks from Dyson and Conran, and to show how truly influential she really was.
As one kind reviewer of the show said: “….it reminds you not only of Spry’s energy and spirit, but also of her singular, sedulous eye; a line may be drawn, you understand, between its revolutionary impulses and so much of design today.
There were just so many facets to Spry's career. What did you most enjoy learning more about as you curated this exhibition?
I think the most amazing thing was speaking to the people who knew her and learning a bit more about that legendary energy and enthusiasm. How she really was a slave driver but made it so fun that the slaves became enchanted with it all! Perhaps not such a good analogy in today’s world, but life-changing for many in those early and middle years of the last century. And mostly women, who’d never learnt to be energetic and creative, or to start their own businesses, so were completely liberated.
It sounds like an overstatement but I think working and training with Spry was unbelievably life-changing for countless people. I had read about that of course, but to hear it from those she changed was deeply moving and impressive. It made me grateful to be part of the industry she really reinvented.
How did you find curating an exhibition compared to the usual events you do?
Choosing “things” to tell a story and look good, is the same in an exhibition or an event. But the things were all so much more disparate, so much more un-related to each other. I like to joke that it became an exercise in ‘florensic science’ ! And in many ways it was, as it looked at historical facts and fictions, tried to distinguish and then finding the ‘evidence’ of objects and photographs, to support the facts. Huge fun though and much more challenging than most weddings and parties!
Can you share any highlights from this experience?
One great highlight was finding the tapestry carpet she had worked during the war. I had been told by many that it had worn out and been discarded as, like all things beautiful, Spry believed they should be used and enjoyed. So she had it on the floor of Winkfield where 1000s of pupils remember walking over it. But Spry’s only son, Tony Marr, had salvaged 8 squares from the original 24, and they were offered to me by Tony’s sister-in-law. She’d had them since his death in the 1980s but they will now become part of the Garden Museum’s permanent collection, which I think it very much where Spry would have wanted them to be too. She always said that she was first and foremost a gardener.
Constance Spry: A Fashion for Flowers closes this Sunday 26 September but the exhibition will remain online. The Garden Museum is an absolute gem, located right by Lambeth Palace, a ten minute walk from the Tate Britain.
Shane Connolly started his floral design business in 1989. Shane has always had an organic approach to his designs, and he is a passionate advocate of British grown, seasonal flowers. He has decorated some the country’s most prestigious venues for an eclectic range of clients. In 2005, he was asked by HRH the Duchess of Cornwall to design her bouquet and all other flowers for her marriage to HRH Prince of Wales and the service of dedication in Windsor Castle. In recognition of this, he was awarded a Royal Warrant of Appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales in 2006. In 2011 Shane was appointed Artistic Director for the wedding of TRH’s The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. He was awarded a second Royal Warrant of Appointment, to HM The Queen in 2015.