Wendy Davis, National Chairman of NAFAS
One Christmas, my presents arrived wrapped in red foil and garnished with artfully contrived arrangements of pine cones, lichen-encrusted branches and holly leaves sprayed gold. I knew something was up – my mother had joined a flower arrangment society. The truth is that I come from a passionate family of flower arrangers. My grandmother used to stand beech leaves in jars of obscure chemicals and then flatten them under the carpet for months in preparation for Christmas when she would fix them in oasis with honesty pods and plastic hellebores. Famously, for an exceptionally ambitious display, she once grew gladioli and set them at angles using a protractor, to create the effect of the sun rising.
So you can imagine my excitement when I was invited to tea with Wendy Davis, Chairman of the National Association of Flower Arrangment Societies, at the magnificent eighteenth century headquarters in Devonshire Sq where the activities of their seventy-two thousand members are co-ordinated. Wendy was flushed with pride from a recent triumph at Westminster Abbey, where she had organised the display for the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible. Twenty-one years ago, a close friend took Wendy along to a flower arranging class in Llangollen, North Wales and she has never looked back since, yet she still carries an awareness of the essentially modest nature of her chosen art.
Wendy is inspired by Julia Clements, the third president after Constance Spry and Mary Pope, the pioneering founder of the Association in 1959. A legend among flower arrangers and author of dozens of classic books on the subject, Julia Clements died in November after celebrating her one hundred and fourth birthday this year. “A week before she died, we were doing flower arranging together,” Wendy confided to me, as we sipped tea from floral cups in the quiet of her panelled office. “She started flower arranging classes after the war to give people something to do that wouldn’t cost money,” explained Wendy, lapsing into respectful silence and taking another sip of her tea.
Leading me up the fine old staircase, winding through the centre of the house, Wendy showed me the expansive reception rooms with cases storing all manner of flower-arranging trophies and the grand conference room where representatives from the twenty-one regions convene. On the top floor, modestly appointed shared bedrooms provide accommodation for members from out of London whilst visiting on Association business. Staffed by a core of five paid staff and a great many voluntary helpers, the prevailing atmosphere at NAFAS is of civility and respect.
Wendy taught me how to spot the ubiquitous NAFAS triangle, the ideal compositional form for a floral arrangement, permitting the most elegant use of flowers and foliage. It need hardly be said that there is an elaborate culture at NAFAS with a refined aesthetic code of its own, maintained through demonstrators that teach the visual vocabulary and judges who qualify to make assessments in the all-important competitions. Make no mistake, flower arranging is a highly competitive global arena these days with NAFAS sending contestants to Boston for the world championships and acting as consultant to Indian universities upon the creation of flower arranging qualifications.
Wendy prefers to speak of the personal meaning that is incarnate when flowers are used to express emotion. “When I’ve done funeral flowers for members of my family and friends, it’s how I say goodbye to them,” she confessed, turning thoughtful as we descended the stairs again. Certainly, I associate flower arranging with churches and the innate poetry that exists in such ephemeral displays set against unremitting stone. Wendy related the story of an eleven-year-old boy who won a trophy in a NAFAS scheme to encourage flower arranging among the young. He could not collect the award because his father died, but he made a floral arrangement in memory of his father. “Some people said it was morbid, but I said, ‘no, creating this is part of the healing process.’” Wendy informed me with a tender smile.
I cannot deny that flower arrangements strike an emotional chord for me too. I can never walk past, I must always stop and pay due reverence to any floral composition – contemplating the thought and care expended in its creation. And flowers from the garden displayed in old china have been a fond motif throughout my life. In fact, I do not remember those Christmas presents which came adorned so beautifully with pine cones and holly, I only remember the decoration.
The flower arrangers might seem strangely placed here at the edge of the City surrounded by financial industries – yet the truth is they are a gentle civilising influence upon their neighbours, preaching their NAFAS message of “Friendship through flowers.”
National Association of Flower Arranging Societies headquarters in Devonshire Square.
First president of NAFAS, Mary Pope – a pioneer in the flower arrangement movement.
The Lady Mayoress of Plymouth admires a flower arrangement at Saltram House, 1963.
At the Buxton Festival, Mrs Russell Ritchie Innis presents the Paul Revere silver bowl to Mary Pope as a gift from the National Association of Garden Clubs of USA, 1964.
Admiring a table decoration in scarlet and green at Taunton’s Christmas exhibition, 1963.
Tom Hill, winner of the trophy for the best arrangement at the Mercia & North Wales Show, Nantwich.
Mary Pope and Margaret Hewitt OBE admire a pedestal arrangement of the Liverpool Flower Arrangement Society staged by Hugh Mather of St Helens.
Mrs E. Allen, National Chairman receives a Sheffield carving set from Mrs B. Denton, Chairman of Sheffield Floral Club.
Veteran flower arranger, Julia Clements, celebrates her hundredth birthday at NAFAS in 2006.
A Christmas kissing bough engraved by Joan Hassall, from an early issue of The Flower Arranger.
Archive images copyright © NAFAS