Book Review: The Surprising Life of Constance Spry

The Surprising Life of Constance Spry: From social reformer to society florist.
(Sue Shephard, Macmillan, 2010)
I picked up this book for two reasons; I have the David Austin rose “Constance Spry” so I wanted to know about its namesake, and I enjoyed a previous book by this author, Seeds of Fortune: A Great Gardening Dynasty. I’m delighted to report that this book is a much faster read than Shephards’ previous book, and in fact was a real page-turner. Spry’s life really was surprising!

Shephard brought to life the interesting tale of a forlorn child with a rather miserable beginning who, through many odd twists and turns, ended up the florist of choice for the UK’s elite, even doing the flowers for a royal wedding! The book had to be a biography; as a work of fiction it would never be believable.

I won’t give away all the interesting parts but will instead dwell on what the book revealed as the cutting edge of floral design in the 30’s and 40’s—the use of kale leaves and other edibles in arrangements. Indeed, a floral design in a shop window featuring these elements was such a head turner that the police had to be called to clear a sidewalk! Startling for the time, I’m sure. But what struck me is that these are the very elements we see touted now, both in cut flower design and in planted containers, that are thought to be so “on the edge.” How did the floral design and gardening world lose these elements between the middle of the last century and now?

Also interesting is that Spry, who was really behind the birth of formal floral arranging competitions (oops, I gave away more of the story!) completely disapproved of the idea of competition in floral design. She thought it should be a venue for self-expression, and a way for everyone of any economic means, to have beauty in their life. Furthermore, she abhorred the idea that there were set “rules” for design (you know the ones we all contort ourselves to for floral shows—flowers must not touch the table, the proportions must be thus and so, etc.) 

For gardeners and those who like to arrange flowers (and yes, even grow Rosa “Constance Spry”) this book is worth a read. 

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