“Unleash your imagination”
The legendary editor and society figure Fleur Cowles was as cheeky and iconoclastic in the way she used flowers as she was in every other aspect of her long and remarkable life. A painter, writer, editor and diplomatic envoy, Cowles is best known for creating one of the most innovative—and financially extravagant–magazines ever published. Flair, which lasted only a year beginning in 1950, featured editorial contributions by the likes of Picasso, Auden, Dali and Churchill on pages that popped up, folded out and were removable in an array of paper stocks. Cowles’ likewise fearless and original style of entertaining, which featured all manner of unusual plants and vessels in a range of floral styles, delighted her often famous guests. (She counted the Queen Mother as her best friend.) In Cowles’ illustrious ‘set’ at Albany, as the apartments at this chicest of London addresses are called, flowers were always displayed against the Wedgewood blue walls. One time I visited, she had enormous stems of dried cow parsley, so tall they nearly reached the ceiling. Wild cow parsley was just one of the many weeds Cowles adored in the wild, and then began to cultivate in her garden.
Cowles bristled at the conventions and ‘rules’ of good taste flower arranging, such as the long forgotten principle that flowers must have enough space between them for a butterfly to pass or the dictum that baby’s breath must never be used in combination with roses. To Cowles, such snobbery bred conformity and inhibited the freedom to play which was a hallmark of her style. Cowles adored roses– she dedicated an entire issue of Flair to them and she often painted them in her naive, bright and singular style. She also loved to mix them with baby’s breath. Another favorite combination was red roses and pink clover–the weed one finds growing in lawns. Her arrangements could be incredibly modern, almost abstract in design and also naturalistically abundant and loose, as the occasion or location demanded. Her table London settings often had a sly sense of humor. She might combine broccoli with chrysanthemums or use a watermelon with its center scooped out to hold sweet peas or pile a large silver platter with a mountain of shelled peas, and edge them with just the heads of white roses! For the treasures she gathered on country roadsides, like buttercups and daisies, Cowles thought they were best “accommodated, (not arranged)” in a vase or cachepot. Or in another of her delightful turns of phrase, she liked wildflowers “plunked as picked”, in order that they retain their innocent charms.
Her open-minded approach extended to vessels. While she loved Venetian glass and fine ormolu, every kitchen item with some kind of hole in it was fair game: cake molds, jugs, ginger pots, tea pots with cracked spouts, spice boxes, and of course, every single kind of drinking glass. Even what you would toss, she would have you keep: those tiny hotel jam jars, plastic containers and soup tins so that you can paint them or cover them with leaves or stuff them into baskets.
While Cowles eschewed rules, she did offer a few anti-rule rules of her own: “Liberate your imagination”; “Follow your intuition”; “Don’t be inhibited”; and my favorite, “Improvise, improvise!”
In honor of Fleur and Charlotte’s roses in full bloom – we have put together a C’est Inspire on these beautiful blossoms, the queen of the flower border. Head on over!