Oh, to be one of Fred Wilkinson's flower arrangements! To attend soirees at Buckingham Palace. To draw an admiring glance from the Princess of Wales in the royal apartments at Windsor. To dazzle the invited guests, not to mention millions of adoring Anglophiles, at the wedding of Princess Anne. To be sniffed by the royal nose of her majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, herself.
This week, Mr. Wilkinson's arrangements may be found in the less regal surroundings of Marriott's Hunt Valley Inn on Shawan Road. (Although the wares of some 60 dealers at the annual Hunt Valley Antique Show, which is sponsoring his visit, will add their own touches of majesty.) However, those who attend his "Flowers and Antiques" demonstration on Friday morning and his hands-on flower-arranging workshop that afternoon will certainly be drawn there not only by his reputation as a skillful and creative floral designer, but by the mystique that clings to anyone who hobnobs regularly with royalty. As master flower arranger to the queen of England, Mr. Wilkinson is in great demand as a speaker by flower-fanciers all over the world.
When Mr. Wilkinson is telephoned for an interview, he is out surveying the gardens of his English headquarters, Constance Spry Ltd., where he lectures, demonstrates, produces a variety of publications, and tends to the plants. Constance Spry Ltd. (named for its founder, an influential plantswoman and teacher known for championing the fragrant, lushly-petaled "old rose") has recently moved to Moor Park House in Farnham, Surrey. This estate is blessed with considerable history -- the oldest part of the house was built in the 17thcentury by one of Charles II's courtiers, and was once the home of Jonathan Swift -- but the gardens, Mr. Wilkinson says, are in sorry shape.
"We have 76 acres of neglected parkland. My aim is to make a garden there, and grow many interesting things, unusual things we cannot buy. Very little had been done to the land for many years, but it's wonderful soil."
Growing beautiful, unusual plants, not arranging them, was the first focus of Fred Wilkinson's career. A fifth generation New Zealander (his ancestors arrived in 1832, several years before large-scale settlement began), he showed an interest in flowers from toddlerhood.
"My family tells me I started picking flowers and bringing them in when I was 3," he says. "I had my own garden by the time I was 4."
He began working toward a career as a horticulturist with a four-year apprenticeship in a nursery in Auckland and a degree in horticulture from Lincoln College, Canterbury University. After earning his diploma, he learned on the job in a nursery and in a commercial florist business, where he specialized in flowers for weddings.
"As far as the flower arranging side of things, I've really had no training," he admits. "All of the flower arranging and floristry I've done has been picked up along the way."
In May 1962, the young horticulturist arrived in Great Britain.
"I originally came to England on a vague sort of 'working holiday,' expecting I would be in Britain for a year or 18 months, taking any job that came along, just to travel and see some of the world while I was still free," he says. "I've been here for 29 years!"
Through a friend, he made contact with the Constance Spry Flower School, founded in the 1930s as a women's finishing school, which provided training in cookery and secretarial skills as well as flower arranging. The school's first male student, who arrived more than 30 years ago, is now its co-principal, and Mr. Wilkinson, who was first set to work trimming a rue hedge, eventually became director of horticulture.
At that time, the Spry organization was located at Winkfield Place, Constance Spry's home near Windsor Castle. At a charitable event sponsored by the school, Mr. Wilkinson, who was demonstrating flower arranging techniques, was spotted by member of the royal staff. The florist's work was recommended to the royal family, and he began to pay weekly visits to Windsor to do flowers for the royal apartments, as well as supplying lavish arrangements for state occasions.
One such occasion was the wedding of Princess Anne to Capt. Mark Phillips in 1973, for which Mr. Wilkinson and his team from Constance Spry filled Westminster Abbey with bloom, as well as supplying flowers for the round of dinners and dances that accompany a royal wedding, and decking the family and guest rooms. The date -- Nov. 14 -- and the early arrival of wintry weather made obtaining the flowers something of a challenge, but all the work was more than worth it when the bride appeared at the top of the grand staircase, ready to be taken to the church. "It was just a dreamy moment," he recalls.