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Spry but serious: an exhibition on Constance Spry at the Design Museum, London, has been bitterly criticised for triviality by some of the museum's trustees. Tim Richardson argues that it should instead be congratulated for its thoughtful approach to an unfashionable subject.

When James Dyson resigned his chairmanship of the Design Museum at the end of September, reportedly the 'last straw' for him was 'A millionaire for a few pence', an exhibition devoted to the life and work of Constance Spry, the Martha Stewart of mid-century Britain. Spry does seem to inspire incredulous reactions from those involved in the more masculine, industrial sector of the design world. Dyson's objections have been echoed by another trustee, Sir Terence Conran.

Constance Spry is indeed a name, or an icon, or perhaps more accurately a brand, that evokes specific associations--there is the celebrated 1950s cookbook (viewed as a kind of updated Mrs Beeton), flower arranging at the Women's Institute, a Mayfair flower shop and correspondence courses in everything from etiquette to party-hosting. As a result, Spry's work has been dismissed as fey, frivolous and insubstantial. The unspoken addendum, of course, is that it is also female. This small but intensely enjoyable exhibition goes some way towards challenging those preconceptions. 'A millionaire for a few pence' is essentially a straightforward and uncritical chronological progress through Spry's career. If it does have an angle, it is its emphasis on her role as a social reformer and leveller of domestic taste (hence the exhibition's title, which refers to Spry's use of cheap, common or even 'found' materials). Spry did indeed begin her career in public-health education in Ireland, before moving to an East London girls' school, where she first found an eager audience for her flower and foliage arrangements. In this light, the exhibition characterizes Spry as an individual who 'democratised homemaking in mid-20th-century Britain'.

It is an attractive proposition, but there is no convincing evidence for it. Spry set out her manifesto in her first book, Flower Decoration (1934), and did not deviate from it: 'Intelligent women of today take the most intense interest in the decoration and furnishing of their houses ... But in this general trend towards a greater care and love of beauty and suitability, I think that flowers have lagged behind.'

Spry considered herself an artist, and believed that other women might express themselves artistically, too, using flowers as their medium. She made a gentry pastime more widely accessible, and encouraged artistic expression among women of all backgrounds--but it is a little optimistic to infer that women were socially emancipated through flower arranging. Spry was catering to an aspirational and competitive impulse, and despite its widespread popularity, her approach was at root traditionalist and anti-democratic. In one typical passage in Flower Decoration, Spry provides guidelines for floral adornments to the breakfast, lunch and dinner tables--all to be completed, presumably, in addition to the usual wifely duties.

Only the most ardent flower arranger would consider this liberating.

This cavil aside, the exhibition is a well-paced and absorbing study of the most influential exponent of an under-rated decorative artform. Spry herself emerges as a shy, humorous, unsnobbish and disarmingly unglamorous woman who was popular with both her staff and her high-class clientele (whom she did not try to cultivate as friends). Her many commissions for glamorous society weddings in the 1930s are a highlight--for a Bonham-Carter wedding she used only cow parsley to decorate the church, and Cecil Beaton's photographs of the bridesmaids at his sister Nancy's wedding, linked by whitewashed floral garlands, are acutely redolent of the time.

Spry's collaborations with moderne interior designers are touched upon--she added white flowers, with green stalks of course, to complement Syrie Maugham's 'Vogue Regency' white interiors--and the evolution of her shops and flower arranging schools is well chronicled. Constance Spry Ltd has provided two large arrangements in the naturalistic Spry style (the scent of lilies fills the gallery), although more examples and explanation of the look would have been useful--the dark slide show provided is inadequate.

One important omission here is Spry's role in mid-century horticulture: her pre-war attitude might be placed in the context of Jason Hill, Norah Lindsay, Beverley Nichols and other connoisseurial plantsmen-writers of the time (Spry certainly knew the last two). She also nurtured a pioneering collection of the old shrub roses that were to become so fashionable after her death in 1960, as promoted by Graham Stuart Thomas. The influence on Spry of gardener writers such as Maria Theresa Earle and Gertrude Jekyll might have been a more profitable avenue than the social-reform aspect: Earle's Pot Pourri from A Surrey Garden (1897), much-loved by Spry in childhood, is alluded to only rather cryptically in the exhibition text; and Jekyll's Flower Decoration in the House (1907) was another major inspiration. Using such texts and their illustrations, it would have been possible to illustrate Spry's ideas as a development of nineteenth century Aestheticism.

Constance Spry may not have been quite the democratically inclined domestic goddess offered up in this exhibition, but the Design Museum ought to be congratulated for taking on such an unfashionable and unexpected subject.

'Constance Spry: A millionaire for a few pence' opened at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London (0870 833 9955) on 17 September and continues until 28 November.

Tim Richardson's history of English gardens in the twentieth century will be published in the spring by Aurum/Country Life.
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Author:Richardson, Tim
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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