A friend dropped by today, and she’s in a slump. It’s not my place to detail her woes, but because I’ve been reading the biography of an amazing gardener and florist it led me to think how all our small dramas play out over time, acted upon life’s large stage.
The biography is titled The Surprising Life of Constance Spry, and is written by Sue Shepard. Spry is a name many gardeners will know given David Austin named his first English rose introduction after her (Spry had led the cultivation of French and old roses in Britain in the 30s). She revolutionized flower arranging in England and America, eschewing the stiff wired arrangements of the time for more relaxed designs incorporating native plants, fruits and seeds. She broke more rules than she created and her work became wildly fashionable in London between the wars and beyond. Her lush, loose aesthetic still influences contemporary florists today.
From mine manager’s wife to florist for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Spry truly did have a surprising life. But for me, her passion for plants is the most important part.
‘You have no idea,’ Spry wrote, ‘how wonderful it is to come out of the dark frustrations of being unable to crystallize such visions as you may have, and to find suddenly a possible medium of expression.’
An artist’s words. This past summer, partially as a result of this column, I have found Spry’s release in flowers, in growing and creating arrangements that bring happiness to others. It’s not easy to both grow and arrange, and I’m still learning. It takes patience, an eye for colour, shape, and line, all of which need to be practiced, cultivated, over time. One becomes highly conscious of seasonality, the ephemeral nature of flowers, and how in the pursuit of beauty, we must again and again let go.
In 2004, the Design Museum of London held an exhibition of Spry’s work, one which proved controversial and led to a museum director’s resignation. (For him, floral styling didn’t count as design, rather as ‘decorative art’).
Fitting this bias, given in Spry’s time, women were educated in how to ‘do’ the flowers. Thankfully today, there’s a resurgence in the appreciation of the domestic arts and the use of local flowers, and unlike the museum director, I think it’s important to look at such crafts as art. We all live our lives on a stage of space. And how we adorn that space, what colours we need to feel happy, what plants speak to memories or desires, are fundamental to happiness and health.
Here I must quote William Morris, a man whose work Spry did not love, a man whose Arts & Crafts designs were too busy and precious for her, but a man who, like her, valued the artisnal, the skills inherent craft. She once said that, “quickness and a sure hand are far more useful" to flower arranging, "for an eye can be trained more readily than a character changed.” A bodily assertion, if there ever was one. So I quote Morris here for my friend, that she too might arrange a few flowers in a vase and find peace in the little things, knowing that over a lifetime they can be writ large on a heart. “The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.’
I say, start with flowers.