Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Constance Who?

Few weeks ago I found this book in a local charity shop. I always find old recipe books interesting so I bought it. When I got home I googled the author, Constance Spry, and was surprised to find she wasn't a cook but a florist and floral designer, and something of a celebrity.

It might seem odd to think of a celebrity flower arranger these days, but then a lot of decades would find the idea of a celebrity chef pretty odd too. That she had such name-recognition was why her name is on the cookbook, which she actually wrote with a friend, Rosemary Hume (the woman who invented coronation chicken).

That given, I was a bit surprised I had never heard of her. She sounds absolutely fascinating: from a humble background, she was an educated, working woman prior to World War One, during which she left her unhappy marriage and got a job as head of women's welfare in the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Later, she was a headmistress, and left that in 1929 to set up a flower shop. By 1934, she had a shop in Mayfair that employed 70 people. She was commissioned to do the flowers for various royal weddings, including the coronation in 1953. She'd married again in 1926, to the man whose surname she took - Henry Spry - except she hadn't, since he was technically still married to his first wife. She also had a lesbian relationship with the artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein).

Even her flower arranging was controversial. It included everyday objects and non-flowery things like cabbage leaves, and was inspired by Dutch Old Masters. When the Design Museum in London ran a retrospective of her work in 2004, board member James Dyson threw a wobbly and resigned. Presumably he thought that arranging flowers was women's stuff, and therefore not real design.

We think of the mid-20th Century as a time of domestic servitude for women, but very often I think the women who didn't fit this mould just get airbrushed out, and I wonder if sometimes feminists are as guilty as anyone on this. We think of flower-arranging as a kind of symptom of women's oppression, but as far as I'm concerned any way anyone wants to express their creativity is good. Besides, Spry spent much of her life committed to educating women in various ways, and offering them a chance to gain skills. Is it ok to say that Constance Spry, flower-arranger, educator, bon viveur, barbecue fan and businesswoman, seems like an absolute legend?

Quite apart from anything else, she just sounds like she knew how to live. Here she is, discoursing on train dinners:

"The primary qualification about such food is that it shall taste fresh and never bear the faintest trace of paper flavouring. I asked RH to recall a train meal that she thought good, and she gave me this one she remembered: 'Very good chicken, salad, and not too much bread.' A small spring chicken, cooked in a pan with butter, white wine and tarragon, was split in four and covered in lettuce leaves. With this there were bread and butter sandwiches, (French bread) lettuce and carefully picked watercress, salted water-biscuits, Camembert, ripe pears, and a bottle of claret."

I honestly can't be responsible for any acts of violence that might take place in the Virgin Intercity buffet if you just read that. But seriously, they sound so much fun, Constance and Rosemary reminiscing about boozy train picnics, and so much better than the godawful diet-tips and guilt-trips that fill women's magazines now.

You can buy a recent biography of Constance Spry, by Sue Shepherd, here. I haven't read it, so don't know if it's any good, but would love to know if anyone else has?

I'm glad somebody has written a new book about such a fascinating life. It bothers me that women who don't fit the narrative of the time just seem to get lost, and all these pioneering woman risk disappearing from history. Quite often when I read an old book, and some interesting woman pops up, I go to find more information, only to find there's not even a wikipedia page. I've promised myself that I will at least get round to putting up a couple of wikipedia pages for people who deserve it, so if anyone fancies sitting down with me for a wikipedia session, please let me know.

No comments:

Post a Comment