Days of all weathers. Yesterday I drove to the studio under overcast skies, walked up to the coffee shop in balmy sunshine and back in an icy hailstorm. Today it is warm, with a wind so cold it could knock your block off. Ah, April. But still, I'm optimistic. I’ve archived my winter knitwear.
Spring - the renaissance of the flower world. No-one longs for it as much as the flower arranger. For me, I am inching ever closer to being reunited with the flowers that really have my heart - the scrambling, rambling, tumbling kind that explode from the hedgerows in high summer. Wild roses - the pure white scented burnet rose, palest pink wild dog-rose (to my mind the absolute epitome of the perfect flower), the harsh downy-rose, sweet-briar, pink, crinkle-petalled Japanese rose and golden-centered field-rose. Sweetly scented woodbine honeysuckle on the vine, which I use in pretty much every arrangement from June onwards. White bryony. Wild clematis. Not forgetting the intricate and ethereal columbine, of course. The list goes on.
For now we have ranunculus. And there is some blossom around, mostly cherry/plum here, but our strangely un-wintery winter has wreaked havoc with nature’s usual routine and we’re paying the price for it. In my parents' garden the magnolia tree has bloomed in an unenthusiastic sort of way with a paltry show of half the incandescent array of flowers we usually see, and the camellia has simply gone on strike, covered in hard, resolutely tight buds that have not developed for weeks despite the few hours of warm afternoon sun most days. I am given a generous bucket of salix caprea branches, which cheer me up a bit, covered with silky, silvery catkins, and I expect we’ll be cutting our tulips in the next couple of weeks. And so begins, after long months of waiting, the long flush of flowering from April through to October. November, if we’re lucky.
Last week we made a Dutch-Masters inspired arrangement for a photoshoot. We used a David Austin ‘Edith’ rose, a magnificent two-tone flower of blush pink fading to a warm peachy gold at the centre, a golden vuvuzela rose, picotee pink ranunculus, magnolia, narcissi, delphiniums, hellebores from the garden and caramel carnations, with shells strewn around the base of the arrangement. These shells have been collected by our family over decades - cowries from Cornwall, nautilus from the Maldives, sand dollars from Lamu. The vase we used is an unglazed ivory Constance Spry designed Fulham Pottery flower vase from the 1930s - one of the favourites of our collection, and reminiscent of a giant shell itself, with its fluted fan shape and creamy curves. It’s such a gorgeous shape to arrange in, this, but not easy- the vase is super slim, and I don't use foam unless I absolutely have to, so the flowers are arranged ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ style with crumpled chicken wire held in place with three of the tiniest flower frogs in a line along the base.
What made this arrangement for me was the fortuitous discovery by Jesse of a bucket of garden foliage in the studio bound for the garbage, which had sprouted cream leaves and peach-coloured shoots. A happy accident. I often find that inadvertent, fluky use of supplementary ingredients elevate a flower arrangement beyond the original plan, which might have been pretty, but not particularly interesting. I get bored easily. Pretty bores me. I like to look at an arrangement and see something unexpected, even just a little weed that makes me squint to work it out, or a colour that’s off. When I see other people’s work that I admire I love the part where I think what is that?
We are - as I think most designers are - ever inspired by the astonishingly beautiful canvases of the Dutch and Flemish 17th century flower painters - Van Huysum, Breughel, Verendael, among many others. One of the greatest pleasures of living in Oxford has been being able to visit so many of them often - there is an extensive collection of still-life paintings on the second floor of the Ashmolean that we sometimes have all to ourselves to stand and gape. What I love most about these paintings is that flowers of all seasons are tiered and massed together, as they could not be in reality, or at least only with painstaking difficulty and a hell of a lot of air miles, purely for the effect of their shapes and the colour contrasts - peonies with poppies, garden roses and primula, narcissus with hollyhocks, with mock orange and apple blossom, iris and lilies. They are the perfect arrangement because they can never truly be.
Choosing a suitable vessel is such an important part of creating the whole arrangement. It’s funny; flowers actually do look their best in vessels designed for flower arranging. Urns, mantel vases, rose bowls. When I started out I arranged in anything - buckets, random pots, saucepans, you name it. When I look back at those photographs sometimes the arrangement was okay (more often than not it was dreadful), but the vessel was all wrong - too wide, too shallow, too bright, too rustic. It’s hard to find the right vases, because flower arranging isn’t really a ‘thing’ anymore. Maybe it’s having a bit of a comeback at the moment but people aren’t producing affordable, great vases that are specifically for flower arranging. Try finding beautiful, practical containers that you can buy in bulk for weddings, for example. (Which probably explains the trend for mismatched vintage glass and antiques.) We’ve been through phases of collecting old silver, brass, pewter, Wedgwood porcelain. We've commissioned our own version of the mantel vase, thrown and glazed for us by a potter deep in the Cambrian mountains (whose mother was a renowned arranger in her time) and is sensational to arrange in - grey, with rust-coloured freckles, the shape of a Gaultier bustier. The top lip dipped at the centre like a cleavage, allowing for flowers to spill out. Twin handled. Footed. I should order more, because they're worth driving hours to the remotest valley in Wales for. Glass vases, unless for massed arrangements or sculptural displays of branches, are too modern and ordinary for our style. No-one wants a gloriously curated arrangement in an Ikea pot.
We have more props than space in the studio now - a prolonged bout of candlestick acquiring at the end of last year and recent arrivals for our next wedding have tipped us over the edge into standing room only - and yet I have recently developed a liking for horn-shaped cornucopia vases on stands (imagine them overflowing with midsummer roses, though!) and discovering 1st Dibs hasn’t helped. Mid-century Italian murano glass? So chic. If I ever have twelve thousand quid to spend on a small jardinière, I know where to go. We're also into matching pairs. At the moment, I have large flasks of flowers either side of our mantelpiece at home and they create a far more dramatic effect than just the one ever could. Sometimes symmetry is very good indeed.
So we're buying up more vessels that are currently unfashionable simply because traditional flower arranging is so out of favour, and we're going to use them in the ways they were intended, albeit in a looser fashion. I know you're sceptical but the cornucopias will be divine, you'll see. And I still think the Hogarth Curve could be completely magical, if it were done right (though I don’t see any way around the use of foam for that one). Goal for this summer: bring back the Hogarth Curve.