John Fowler .. Nancy Lancaster .."The most unhappy unmarried couple in England".. a remark made by Lady Astor.
John Fowler (1906-1977)
The Yellow Room at Avery Row/Brook Street, London
‘The greatest mistake in the world is to believe that so-called good taste is any use without a sense of comfort to complete it.’
Words of Sibyl Colefax, (Lady Colefax Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford)
‘A room must be essentially comfortable, not only to the body but the eye…well behaved but free from too many rules…mannered yet casual and unselfconscious.’
John Fowler, House and Garden Magazine, (May 1965)
John Fowler (1906-1977) was not a member of the elite social circles that Sibyl was accustomed to, but a professional artisan and skilled interior decorator with specialisms in wallpaper, printing and upholstery. He had lost his job at the paint firm Thornton Smith in the downturn following the Wall Street Crash. His skills however, had led antique dealer and decorator Margaret Kunzer to enlist him in her furniture restoration activities supplying Peter Jones department store. John Fowler’s expertise also gave him opportunities to work with Mrs Guy Bethell whose own shop off Grosvenor Square had connected her to Nancy and Ronald Tree. By 1934, John had set up his own small business as John Beresford Fowler Ltd in King’s Road Chelsea, and a stone’s throw from Sibyl Colefax’s Argyll House. By setting up his wares in his garden on a daily basis it was only a matter of time before this society hostess would snap him up. By 1938 Sibyl Colefax was living at Lord North Street and when he joined her company as partner, John Fowler was one of the most sought after decorators.
Nancy Tree purchased the company in 1944 when her relationship with Ronald was breaking down. Presumably, Sibyl Colefax was eager to ‘retire’ from her involvement in the business, though her name would remain as part of its branding to the present day. The nature of the original partnerships changed dramatically once Nancy was on board. The business relationship between Nancy and John was regarded as somewhat love/hate and intensely creative. However, their beliefs were almost identical in essence, and both held a particular fondness for combined comfort and elegance in the way a room must be arranged within the ethos of ‘pleasing decay’ and rustic charm. They both made use of existing furniture and textiles, altering them for suitable effect. Nancy for example would ‘spoil’ new upholstery fabrics by deliberately leaving them out in all weathers in order to give an immediate used appearance. John on the other hand would re-dye old fabrics and simply add new trimmings. His was a ‘humble elegance’, hers was a tatty-edged elegance; John Fowler would complain that Nancy had too much of a fondness for rags, and called Kelmarsh Hall ‘Tatters Hall’ when Nancy was in residence there. But the need to re-use would prove more than essential during the Second World War until the mid 1950s. Crucially, their partnership brought together the design elements of the English country house style with its mix of draped and upholstery textiles like damasks, silks, and chintz, and a strong palette of colours. Yet, their points of reference were different. For Nancy her own heritage and upbringing in Virginia had supplied her with an intense enthusiasm for a worn grace and adornment that replicated the tastes of different generations and their household belongings. For John, it was more academic and based upon the faded elegance of previous centuries. He would take inspiration from the collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum and design books from the eighteenth century and later reproduce them as printed cottons or wallpapers.
The pair worked on many projects together including Nancy’s own apartment in Mayfair and Haseley Court, Oxfordshire. They also left their mark at the Moulin de la Tuilerie at Gif near Paris, Hambledon Manor, Oxfordshire, Daylesford, Gloucestershire, Tyninghame House, East Lothian, and Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire. John Fowler would do much of the travelling and design work, whilst Nancy Lancaster dealt with shop matters. Their most celebrated project which cemented the codes of the English country house style formed part of the apartments above the shop in Avery Row, London. Pieces bought for the shop from country house auctions, antique dealers and warehouses that had never sold in the shop were installed throughout the apartment. Other pieces came from Nancy’s own houses. The Yellow Room (as pictured) was considered once of the most celebrated rooms of the whole ensemble. It consists of double doors at both ends and barrel-vaulted ceiling; the whole measuring 46 ft by 16 ft. The ceiling was painted in an off-white, they added mirrors to the door surrounds to add height and painted festoons above the painted marbled cornice. The yellow walls – the rooms crowning glory – were a rich buttercup yellow. Numerous coats of paint were stippled on, then John Fowler applied layers of glaze which gave a deep shimmer in the light. This has since been difficult to replicate.
John Fowler would retire from the business by the 1970s but continued working with the National Trust as he had done since the mid 1950s. His projects included Clandon Park, Surrey and Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire. The idea of decorating a room as a museum piece had amused Nancy Lancaster, but such employment did not grate with John’s own beliefs which allowed him to reinstate ‘dead’ houses. The old and new had to exist in natural harmony; the faded fabrics and worn furniture could not be upstaged by ‘clean’ paint and sharp lines.
Between the 1930s and 1950s Colefax and Fowler as a brand was providing a style which allowed interiors to be romanticised. The website for the firm today repeatedly summarises the particular look as ‘epitomising the very best of English style, a style that is admired and emulated the world over. The essence of this look is a timeless elegance and subtlety, combined with an emphasis on perfect comfort, and an insistence on quality.‘ It would still have influence in the post-war years, particularly in the United States with interior designers using its signature arrangements and patterns to help establish their clients’ rooms as places of comfort and refinement. It would also splinter into different styles; one of which we would recognise as ‘shabby chic’ today, or simply the English country style. Its legacy in interior design is far-reaching for many well-known designers in the twenty-first century
in COUNTRY HOUSE READER
John Fowler Master of the Sublime Comforts of the English Country House Text by Stephen Calloway Published January 2000 in Architectural Digest
Fowler modeled his 1969 design for the living room of David and Evangeline Bruce’s London apartment after a Louis XVI Parisian example. The ruffled draperies, in the elaborate style he was known for, were based on a wedding dress he saw at a museum.
John Fowler’s entry into decoration occurred by chance. As a young man, he endured office jobs before escaping to a farm. Then, hearing of a position in the grand old London decorating firm Thornton Smith, he began in its paint studio “restoring”—or faking—Chinese wallpapers. From there he moved to head the new painted-furniture department at Peter Jones. Even then he had an original eye, creating smart, unusual rooms that mixed countrified Georgian furniture, French painted pieces and the odd florid Victorian chair covered in voguish satin. From the start he was a genius at draperies.
In 1938 the decorator Sibyl Colefax invited Fowler to join her firm. As he began working for grander clients, his style became grander too. The faded splendor of English country houses became his beau ideal, but it was his collaboration with an American client that would prove the crucial influence. Nancy Lancaster employed him to help with the decoration of her own rooms but became fascinated with decoration herself. At the end of World War II she bought the firm that became Colefax & Fowler from the retiring Colefax. The working relationship between the two was always bracing. Lancaster’s formidable aunt Nancy Astor called them “the unhappiest unmarried couple in England.” It was the unique combination of their enthusiasms and talents—Fowler’s knowledge, attention to detail and color sense and Lancaster’s eye for scale and insistence on comfort—that led to the creation of their English country house look, a style that has lasted half a century.
In spite of crippling shortages of materials, which inspired Fowler to fashion superb draperies from dyed army blankets, the postwar years marked the beginning of their heyday. With the discovery of his own country house, the Hunting Lodge in Odiham, in the late 1940s, Fowler came closest to his aim of “humble elegance.” “What I wanted here was something utterly unpretentious, very comfortable, with a veneer of elegance and informality.” The pretty neo-Jacobean structure became, in the words of one later occupant, Fowler’s “own personal Trianon.” The country retreat, before that an earnest, spartan affair or something impossibly twee, would never be quite the same. At the firm’s Brook Street premises, Fowler’s office was dominated by his “palette,” a wall on which were pinned all his favorite samples and colors; most fabrics—such as the Bowood chintz—were named after the houses in which he had found the original documents. He formed a private language of color names such as “dead salmon” and “mouse’s back”—to which Nancy Lancaster added the infamous “caca du dauphin” and “vomitesse de la reine.” Keith Irvine, Fowler’s assistant in the 1950s, says he was “a brilliant taskmaster.” But there were “fraught days, when, if John was being super-difficult, the best way to defuse the situation was to get him onto his pet subject, Marie Antoinette.” As evidence of the jocular rumor that Fowler was her reincarnation, his staff would say that he “entered every room sideways, as if managing an invisible pannier dress.” In the sixties and seventies Fowler was still engaged in major commercial projects but increasingly preferred to work with the National Trust. With his passion for old decoration (he always claimed to love “undisturbed houses”) and his deep understanding of methods and materials, he had a key voice in the way conservation practice in historic interiors evolved in England. By the time of his death in 1977, at the age of seventy-one, John Fowler was recognized as the éminence grise of English decoration. One of the most touching of tributes was paid to his memory by his friend the duchess of Devonshire: “He was the prince of decorators,” she said, “a scholar with a wonderful memory for whole rooms and the smallest details, and the best appreciator of beautiful things I have ever known.”
John Fowler, Prince of Decorators An addictive biography of one of Britain's most influential decorators. By Carol Prisant John Fowler, Britain's "haute couture decorator," as he (quite rightly) thought of himself, "...never minded being copied," says Martin Wood in his addictive and juicy biography. "So long as it was done well, which alas it very seldom was." You might learn how to do that here. Partnering first with Sybil Colefax (Colefax & Fowler), then with Nancy Lancaster, Fowler is unquestionably the seminal influence in English country house decor of the last 70 years. You also learn that you used to be able to have chintz reglazed; that Lancaster was the real inventor of Shabby Chic; that Fowler once painted fake Chinese wallpapers to sell to Americans; and that he named his favorite colors picturesquely — try "Thames Mud" and "Dead Mouse." Have I mentioned the gorgeous illustrations, many we've never seen before? That Fowler was a genius? That no traditional decorator who hopes to combine utter correctness with unselfconsciousness should be without this book? Yes, I have.
The Invention of the Country-House Style
Edited by Helen Hughes
Review of John Fowler: The Invention of the Country-House Style as submitted by Ian Gow for ICON News (Institute of Conservation)
Conference papers, so often published from a sense of duty, like Festschrifts, tend to the worthy but dull so these sparkling papers come as an agreeable surprise and must be amongst the most amusing post-conference papers ever published. One simply longs to have been at the two conferences of which these are the distillation for the fun of observing the delegates as they realised that their hero, whom they had come to celebrate, in paper after paper, was shown, at least in the paint department, to have been rather less authoritatively in touch with the world of Marie Antoinette than he thought and there is a sense that by the end of the conferences the discarded body of poor John Fowler was left with almost as many stab wounds as David Rizzio, the favourite of another Romantic Queen.
The unravelling began at the outset at the first Kelmarsh conference when Marion Suhr recounted the recent history of her attempt to restore Nancy Tree's iconic pink Entrance Hall at Kelmarsh. Through the accidents of inheritance, the rented Kelmarsh, - the dummy run for the Trees' more mature masterpiece after they purchased Ditchley - had become a Trust and the spaling pink walls had to be freshened up. Marion Suhr's gives a blow by blow account of her dawning realization that this iconic twentieth-century interior, far from being authentic Nancy, was not just a quick wash and brush up by Fowler in 1950 but a repainting job that reveals a careless lack of supervision by the master to an extent where the true taste of the revered Kick, Nancy's house-painting genius, may have not a lot in common with what replaced it:
'As a consequence of our meeting Ken, there has been some considerable dispute about the significance of the present scheme. The optimists, and Fowler fans, suggest it is a wonderful example of a great patron, Nancy Lancaster, working in conjunction with a great designer, John Fowler, in a house that led the way for cutting-edge interior design. Others may argue that it was an economical cheering up after the Second World War, applied by a local decorator, colour mixed by a chap called Horace, vaguely under the direction of John Fowler at a time when he and Nancy were not even speaking. The latter scenario places the real significance firmly with the earlier pre-1933 scheme.'
This disparity between myth and reality at Kelmarsh set the tone for much of what followed.
Peter Inskip's paper 'Working with John Fowler' is important in setting down the crucial oral history on which future scholarship will depend and we must all be grateful to Robert Becker for publishing neat so much of Nancy Lancaster's wit in his Nancy Lancaster Her Life, Her World, Her Art, 1996. Peter Inskip also has the best joke when he recalls that Sir Hardy Amies, on seeing John Fowler's famous garden at the Hunting Lodge, swore, that when he himself had a country cottage, it should have neither lawn nor hedges so that he would not have to exhaust his weekend on its maintenance. All these papers cannot but show up the paucity of the current sources on which this important chapter in taste must depend and the necessity for more memoirs of the surviving cast to be committed to paper.
Christine Sitwell, Painting Conservation Advisor to the National Trust in her paper cannot but sow the same modern doubts as Marion Suhr as she revisits John Fowler's work for the Trust and reassesses it with the hindsight of recent thinking and much more research data. In the Green Drawing Room at Clandon, for instance, 'Recent paint analysis has suggested that the scheme Fowler applied to the ceiling is purely decorative and has no historical basis'. And it gets worse in the Saloon where Fowler's scraping back was revealing not so much Leoni, as he fondly thought, but 1879 High Victoriana and it is difficult to remember how recently we have begun to get a grip on nineteenth-century paint specifications. Even Lees-Milne, who claimed the credit for introducing Fowler to the Trust was aghast: 'looking round, I thought it the most hideous decoration I had seen: flesh pink (which John Fowler calls biscuit) and purple'.
None of these writers seem to me to be relishing their debunking and this cannot but make Patrick Baty's line by line analysis of John Fowler and John Cornforth's outline of the Fowler method of painting rooms in their English Decoration in the 18th Century, 1974 which they confusingly juxtapose with references to William Butcher's 1821 account of painting a room, extremely funny as Butcher's workmanlike account of how to achieve a substantial effect, in spite of the vagaries of the then available materials, appears to be wilfully used as a justification for adulterating much better and reliable modern paints in pursuit of faulty effects on dubious aesthetic grounds and his title 'Inspired by the Past?' says it all.
Ian Bristow's first of two papers set out his thorough and more exacting research into the nature of eighteenth-century paint and that period's approach to colour as well as a useful summary of the history of modern authentic decor in Britain; according an important place to the restorations of the Brighton Pavilion, while his chapter on the paint analysis of the Kelmarsh cannot but show up the more primitive approach of John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster.
Rather less certain is Louise Ward's expose of the 'myth' of authentic country-house decor which she suggests is not only a twentieth-century construct but something of an imposture or even fraud in that while we may wish to think of it as a touchstone of Britishness it was the invention of an American, Nancy Lancaster. This too is very amusing until we are told that the Blue Drawing Room at Chatsworth is authentic Fowler, and thus one's guard is necessarily raised as this is a simplification rather too far.
But the fun of these papers depends, like a Feydeau farce, on a general acceptance of Fowler's standing as the authority and conduit of eighteenth-century authenticity and, if a third conference could be contemplated, the growth of this idea seems worth teaselling out. In 1976 I joined the Department of the Environment and found myself as a Research Assistant engaged in trying to help the decision making about such important historic interiors as Audley End and Osborne. John Fowler and John Cornforth's English Decoration in the 18th Century, had only just been published but in 1974 but I think I was puzzled by the Trust's interior decorating and very much more comfortable with the 'Authenticity Before Taste' camp in the Department of Furniture and Woodwork of the Victoria and Albert Museum. In his review of Cornforth and Fowler in the Times Literary Supplement, 17th January 1975, Peter Thornton, Keeper of that Department thundered:
'If, in spending so much money as we do as a nation on the preservation of our great houses, we are sincerely trying to preserve part of our cultural heritage and not merely providing subjects for Christmas calendars, we must present these houses coherently to the public so that it can learn to appreciate and understand what their true place was in our history.'
And he went on to oppose the genuine article of 'authenticity before taste' to Cornforth and Fowler's 'loosely artistic rendering' which is exactly what this pair of conferences some 30 years later is now exposing.
It seems to me that some of this authority was given retrospectively, and in my view quite innocently, by John Cornforth who was merely acting as Boswell to the ailing Fowler's Johnson as Peter Inskip recalls of a typical weekend at the Hunting Lodge. John Cornforth's hundreds of Country Life articles are concerned to show 'the thinking behind' whatever was under review and he spent his life as a journalist asking this kind of question and weighing up the evidence as the files of his papers, now in the V&A demonstrate. The two Johns' book was meant to be helpful, indeed the book began as an internal training manual for the Historic Buildings Reps of the NT; 'the boys and girls of the National Trust' whose education was to remain John Cornforth's life-long personal mission. Because John Cornforth later became a leading authority on decoration in his own right, it gave a seriousness to a book that John himself had no wish to revise as he saw all too clearly that the modern research of the next generation in Ian Bristow and so many others made it now outmoded. Instead of wasting time on a revision he started, but not without a struggle, to give shape to his posthumous masterpiece on early Georgian interiors.
The emerge of Colefax and Fowler as an international brand after John Fowler's death must also have imparted a posthumous authority as presumably the firm now had a very real commercial stake in a view that saw John and Nancy as touchstones of eighteenth-century authenticity and the business history of their firm needs to be teaselled out too. It clearly evolved into something very different from the antique shop - or more accurately antiques shop - of John and Nancy's early days with presumably an element of subcontracting in other areas. Looking back it is easy to see now that John Fowler cannot have had our modern historiographic sense of his importance in the history of taste or he surely could not have offered up anything quite so flaky as an example in his controversial 'A matter of balance' Chapter 11, as Mrs Lancaster's Wyattville London Drawing Room: but one's confusion here is surely a quite modern historiographic one in that he must have chosen it fairly as an example of 'fashionable decoration' whereas we, infused with the Colefax and Fowler myth, where Louise Ward is on rather surer ground, are now so confused that we read it as no less a 'restoration', now Avery Row too is seen as iconic, than the Clandon and Sudbury examples that follow.
But it seems to me that some blame must be reserved to the National Trust and the best paper in this collection is undoubtedly Tim Knox's on John Fowler and the National Trust where he bravely extends the Trust's knuckles for the rap as he describes the storm of protest that greeted the white paint that John Fowler applied to the stair at Sudbury and the dawning that this brouhaha, ably fanned by the donor family, was to teach the Trust an 'important lesson' in that they as guardians of their 'historic-house museums' should not have 'permitted a decorator to impose his taste upon them in a way that a private proprietor might do'.
The focus of the row therefore was not about interior decorators as such but more about control. There is nothing wrong with a Curator employing interior decorators much as Nancy in her own houses was to find Boudin invaluable as a source of materials and expertise but she herself never relinquished any overall control and remained accountable for the final result. Tim Knox deftly withdraws the Trust's knuckles, just as he had invited the ruler to descend, by acknowledging this Boudin-factor with his question 'what else could they do' given the state in which their houses had largely come in the aftermath of the War and requisitioning.
But it seems to me there is a better historiographic defence if one accepts how radical the very idea of presenting works of art in situ that was inherent in the Trust's innovatory Country House scheme actually was. Curatorial expertise was confined to art galleries and museums which tended to be custom built around a specification for the display and best storage of objects that was quite different from the average country house. Indeed an art gallery approach, as pursued by Blunt at Petworth, might produce very beautiful results but was as likely to be rather damaging to our current notions of an historical integrity. Few people possessed any expertise in this new area expertise although it is interesting to reflect that Nancy Lancaster might have made quite a good HBR when rather few people had her wealth of informed knowledge derived from her progress as an inveterate uninvited sightseer of so many country houses in England following on from her interest in Virginia houses.
The Fowler and Lancaster grasp of historic paint, as is so entertainingly revealed here was clearly their Achilles' heel and Patrick Baty reveals how Fowler literally painted himself into a corner but it was surely a lesser aspect of Nancy's interest in houses where a couture foreground had a middle distance of antique shop finds - although it is worth remembering that they bought much of the contents with Ditchley - often with good provenances, and the paint was just the background.
What seems much more interesting is her fixation with patina and shabbiness because we see this an endearing British foible rather than an American thing. And yet it is possible to find other wealthy American ladies who were important pioneers. On Fenway in Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner cobbled a museum together that brilliantly incorporates the patina that she must have been attracted to in Europe and she was not above mixing paint herself to guide her workmen. Electra Webb having been brought up by her mother Louisine Havemeyer, consort of the Sugar King, to curate her part of the family art collection comprising Manet, El Greco, Degas and Mary Cassat left her mother deeply baffled when she began collecting 'Kitchen furniture' as her mother dismissed Electra's pioneering Americana collections. It was Electra Webb who set Mr du Pont on his true Americana path and she has her shrine at the start of the Springthur tour. Although immensely wealthy, she adored nothing so much as cheap and cheerful disposable wallpapered bandboxes.
Although it is easy and amusing to say that the country-house look was invented by an American, the Trees seem to me to be not so easily pinned down by narrow definitions of nationality and Anglo-American seems more just. Ronald Tree was too English to succeed in American politics, which is why they came back to Britain, but they came to hunt and readily assimilated a very British way of life. It seems to me that Nancy's houses were genuine not phoney and, as Martin Wood shows in his recent Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style, 2005, Nancy herself was amused that everything at Haseley had come from other houses she could name yet she could not so easily point up her own contribution. It seems to me that she was genuinely celebrating the quirky idiosyncrasies she had seen and relished in the houses she swooped down upon in her often uninvited progresses and some things like the line-up of leather chairs in the Dining Room is a look that takes one straight back to Robert Kerr's The Gentleman's House, 1864 'a substantial and hospitable aspect in this apartment is the unbroken line of chairs at the wall'. As John Cornforth might have said, Nancy was a 'country house buff'.
One is reminded of another similar and very amusing work of debunking with a focus on interior decorators, though veiled in the politesse of Washington diplomacy, in James A Abbott's Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House restoration, 1998. Although Mrs Kennedy was not exactly in the end doing quite what she started out to do, she had made an outstanding contribution to the thinking about how official residences might be managed. Her popular book must be one of the first attempts to publish historic photographs in sequence of the same room to show changing taste and perhaps she and Boudin were responsible for one of the first serious attempts to recreate a Victorian interior.
Similarly although paint may not have been the strongest card in their pack, it is impossible not to admire and be rather in awe of the outstanding contribution that John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster made to our understanding of the British country house. They had the curiosity to take up their three-penny pieces, they quite often, as in the White Drawing Room at Ditchley chose to leave well alone, and all the time they drew people into the cause. That we have the rather petty luxury of debating what colour the walls of many country houses should be is in part a product of the pioneering efforts of Ronald and Nancy, the two Johns and Jim who inspired a desire to save them at a time when so many more might have been demolished.
John Fowler and John Cornforth English Decoration in the 18th Century Princeton, NJ: The Pyne Press, 1974 The authors are the famous English decorator and the architectural editor of Country Life, respectively. Color and black-and-white photographs, architectural renderings, floorplans and watercolor illustrations complemented by texts examining the arts, crafts and tastes of the 18th century
Nancy Lancaster (9 September 1897 – 19 August 1994) was a 20th-century tastemaker and the owner of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, an influential British decorating firm that codified what is known as the English country-house look. Born Nancy Keene Perkins at her maternal grandfather's farm, Mirador, in Greenwood, near Charlottesville, Virginia, and brought up in Richmond and New York City, she was the elder daughter of Thomas Moncure Perkins, a Virginia cotton broker, and his wife, Elizabeth Langhorne. Nancy Lancaster was also a niece of Nancy Astor, the British politician, and of Irene Gibson, the wife of the Gibson Girl artist Charles Dana Gibson. Her cousin Joyce Grenfell was a celebrated British monologuist and actress.
First marriage She was first married, in 1917, to Henry Field, an heir to the Marshall Field department store fortune. He died five months later, following an operation to remove his tonsils.
Second marriage In 1920 she married bisexual journalist and investor Ronald Tree (1897–1976), a cousin of her first husband. After moving to England in 1927, they had two sons Michael and Jeremy Tree, and a daughter who died at birth. At first the Trees took a 10-year repairing lease on Kelmarsh Hall near Market Harborough in Northamptonshire which Nancy redecorated with help from Mrs Guy Bethell of Elden Ltd. In 1933 the Trees bought Ditchley Park near Charlbury in Oxfordshire, and it was the decoration of this house which earned Nancy the reputation of having "the finest taste of almost anyone in the world." She worked on it with Lady Colefax (Mrs Bethell having died) and the French decorator Stéphane Boudin of the Paris firm Jansen. In November 1933 Ronald Tree became Conservative Party member of Parliament for Harborough. Tree was among a small group who saw the rising Nazi party in Germany as a threat to Britain, and he became a member of anti appeasement MPs (who included Eden, Duff Cooper etc.) who would meet at his house in Queen Anne's Gate. Winston Churchill was not really part of this group, but he and his wife Clementine dined at Ditchley on numerous occasions from 1937. On the outbreak of war, the C.I.G.S were concerned by the visibility of both Churchill's country house Chartwell, and the Prime Ministers retreat of Chequers when, as Churchill romantically termed it 'When the Moon is High'. Churchill had use of the Paddock bunker in Neasden, but only used it on one occasion for a cabinet meeting, before returning to his Cabinet War Room bunker in Whitehall. However, this created additional difficulties on clear nights when a full moon was predicted - so the authorities looked for an alternate site north of London. Tree offered Churchill use of Ditchley, which thanks to its tree coverage and no visible access road made it an ideal site which Churchill was happy with. Churchill first went to Ditchley in lieu of Chequers on 9 November 1940, accompanied by Clementine and his daughter Mary. By late 1942, America had entered the war and the security at Chequers had improved, including covering the road with turf. The last weekend Churchill attended Ditchely as his official residence was Tree's birthday on 26 September 1942. Churchill's last visit was for lunch in 1943. Churchill gave Tree a job in the Ministry of Information, where he met American co-worker Marietta Peabody FitzGerald. Although both were married, the pair began an affair. Tree lost his seat in the 1945 election, and so both divorced in 1947, with their only child the 1960s supermodel Penelope Tree.
Third marriage She married, thirdly, in 1948, Lieutenant Colonel Claude Lancaster (1899–1977), a former military officer, country squire and member of Parliament who owned Kelmarsh Hall near Market Harborough, Northamptonshire. Renowned today for its gardens, it is a popular tourist site and said to be Nancy Lancaster's favorite home of all despite their divorce after only five years in 1953. The couple had been having an affair for years prior to their marriage, and Nancy Lancaster later claimed that it was the suffocating, day-to-day intimacy caused by their marriage that made her realize why they were successful as lovers and ill-suited as husband and wife. In 1950 she was forced to sell her beloved Mirador, and so in 1954 Nancy bought Haseley Court near Oxford. She renovated and decorated the house with the help of her business partner, John Fowler (1906–1977). They also created the famous Yellow room at Avery Row, Mayfair one of the finest rooms in London. After a fire in 1971 she sold the main house at Haseley and moved into the Coach House where she lived for the rest of her life. The garden she created at Haseley was particularly famous for its sense of style. The renowned British interior designer David Hicks (1929–1998) called Nancy Lancaster "the most influential English gardener since Gertrude Jekyll." Referred to as the doyenne of interior decorators (something she never was, nor ever claimed to be) and smart gardeners, she together with John Fowler created much of the English country house look.
Obituary: Nancy Lancaster
HUGO VICKERS in The Independent
Thursday, 25 August 1994
Nancy Keene Perkins, interior designer, garden designer: born 10 September 1897; co-owner, Colefax & Fowler 1950-77; married 1917 Henry Field (died 1918), 1920 Ronald Tree (died 1976; one son, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1947), 1948 Claud Lancaster (marriage dissolved); died Little Haseley, Oxfordshire 19 August 1994.
THE first duty of Fred Field, the butler at Haseley Court, in Oxfordshire, was to make a daily peregrination around the garden recording the dawn chorus on an old-fashioned tape recorder which he could then take up to Nancy Lancaster's bedroom on her breakfast tray. Thus this American woman known for her perfect taste could enjoy the sounds that in earlier life she would have insisted on hearing first hand. She died shortly before her 97th birthday, but had the satisfaction of having led a full and constructive life right to the end.
She was imaginative and stylish, supremely confident in her taste, and had the wherewithal to implement it. Her influence on furnishing, decoration and gardening in Britain was immeasurable. From the Fifties to the late Seventies she ran the London decorating firm Colefax and Fowler in partnership with the late John Fowler. She had established her own style in the 1930s with the restoration of Ditchley Park, an early-18th-century mansion in Oxfordshire, with her second husband, Ronald Tree.
The decorator Nicholas Haslam has described Lancaster's style - 'The English Style' - as 'a cool and eclectic view of the 17th and 18th centuries, rejecting anything ponderous, recreating an image of the past that is not in any way 'period', with all the tiresome historicism that word implies'.
She was an advocate of experimentation, never minding mixing unlikely colours. (In gardens, too, she felt that as long as there was enough green, anything went with anything.) A particular triumph was the yellow drawing-room at Avery Row, in Mayfair, the offices of Colefax & Fowler, 46ft long and 14ft high, which held two people or 50 in equal comfort. The room was always filled with flowers.
Lancaster achieved the miracle of combining elegance and comfort, and one of her particular ideas was to alleviate bathrooms from their spartan discomfort and extended to them the comfort of the drawing-room with carpets, books, pictures and open fires. She used hers as a dressing-room, and having been short of water in early days, installed laundry taps that gushed water. The late Duke of Buccleuch believed that this cost his generation a collective fortune in plumbing as they emulated the habit at home.
She was born Nancy Perkins, the second child of T. Moncure Perkins, a wealthy man from Richmond, Virginia, whose family were meat-packers. Her mother was a Langhorne, also from Virginia, and Nancy, Viscountess Astor, was a Langhorne aunt. Nancy Perkins was brought up partly in Richmond and partly in Europe. Her parents separated and both died in 1914 when she was 16 and thereafter she lived with another stylish aunt, Irene (Mrs Charles Dana Gibson, wife of the artist). Nancy was duly launched into New York society. She came to England for the first time in 1915 to stay with Nancy Astor at Cliveden. She said in old age that she had been extremely lucky to come from such an attractive, amusing family, who never made her feel small, which made every day a joy: 'There was either a row or they played 'truth' and someone cried. There was something going on all the time . . . Oh I thank God every day that I was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains.'
Her first marriage to Henry Field (grandson of the store magnate Marshall Field) was of short duration. Six months later, in 1918, he was dead and she was a very rich young widow. On a voyage to Britain she met Ronald Tree, an Anglo-American cousin of her lately deceased husband. He found her 'beautiful, charming, elegant, but (she) also possessed the unique wit which she inherited from her relations'. They were married in London in May 1920.
Their early married life was spent in the United States but their future was to be in England. Their first home, in East 96th Street, New York, had belonged to the Boston architect Ogden Codman. Codman had written The Decoration of Houses (1897) with Edith Wharton and The House of Good Taste (1911) with Elsie de Wolfe and was therefore an early inspiration. The Trees also lived at Mirador, Virginia, the old Langhorne house, where Nancy worked closely with the architect William Delano, who taught her the importance of a garden's being an extension to the house, and the need for a distant point on which the eye could focus. Mirador was always Nancy's favourite home.
The Trees moved to Britain in the late 1920s and settled in Northamptonshire, where Ronald Tree obtained a seat as Conservative MP for Harborough. First they rented Cottesbrooke, and then, until 1933, Kelmarsh, in hunting country, from Colonel C. G. (Juby) Lancaster, another Tory MP.
When Tree inherited his own fortune from his mother, they bought Ditchley Park, formerly the home of the Viscounts Dillon, in 1933. Their first sight of it induced a deep love. The drive was hedged with wild roses and honeysuckle and the stark, grey house presented a challenge they could not resist. Together they restored the house and garden during a two-year period, converting it into a house of superior elegance. They replaced the terrace from designs found in the Soane Museum.
At Ditchley they entertained the great and the grand from Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Lord Cranborne to Noel Coward and David Niven. And they gave at least one memorable ball there where the guests wore red and white. Churchill used the house as a wartime retreat, 'when the moon was high' at Chequers.
Churchill's visits produced the normal pitch of activity that his presence invariably demanded. Here he took to watching movies, a favourite being Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in Lady Hamilton (1941). One night he threw himself back on to a chair in his bedroom and fell between it and the stool, feet heavenward. Fortunately he found this funny. Nancy's aunt Lady Astor observed these visits with some jealousy from Cliveden, but when Roosevelt sent over his envoy Harry Hopkins, it was too much for her. She telephoned her niece to complain: 'How can you have that nice Sunday School teacher together with that drinking Prime Minister in your house? He'll go home with all the wrong impressions.' Nancy Tree was able to reassure her aunt that Hopkins was playing poker happily with a huge glass of whisky in his hand.
Later Ditchley was sold, but the memory of the Trees and the happy times enjoyed by guests lingered on long afterwards. The house is now a centre for Anglo- American conferences.
After the war, Nancy left her husband in favour of Juby Lancaster, the owner of Kelmarsh. The Trees were divorced in 1947 and Nancy married Lancaster, although the marriage was of short duration.
In 1950 Nancy Lancaster took over the running of Colefax and Fowler. Sibyl Colefax had retired, leaving John Fowler as the active partner, and Colefax's share was bought for Nancy by her former husband Ronald Tree. Lancaster and Fowler were a formidable team. She claimed to be the masculine influence while his early taste had veered towards the frilly. Cecil Beaton wrote of her: 'Nancy, a great raconteur with her feet firmly planted in reality and all her fantasy springing from this fact, is a strange combination of male and female and her earthly sense of facing facts is employed ruthlessly in her own connection.'
At Haseley Court (which she sold in 1975, moving to the coach house next door), she would rise at 5am to garden, longing to get her hands in the mud, loving plants that seeded themselves, but avoiding too much red. Haseley's garden was 'formalised' near the house, but gradually extended 'into nature'.
She did not hesitate to work with decorators and garden designers. Mrs Guy Bethell helped her at Kelmarsh, Eugene Boudin at Ditchley and John Fowler at Haseley and Avery Row. Norah Lindsay from Sutton Courtenay was a guide to gardens and Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe helped her with her terraces and admired the individualism of her gardens. As to her dress style, she favoured wide- brimmed hats and even wore her tiara 'on the tilt'.
Sadly Lancaster entertained no wish to make her life public. She declined an offer to write what she described as a 'full frontal' autobiography and her collaboration on a book on houses with her friend Barry McIntyre never achieved publication. She was, however, widely seen in an enchanting BBC documentary, An Englishwoman's Garden, shown last autumn, directed by Ann Lalic. A memorable scene showed Lancaster propelling herself around her garden in an electric chair and exhorting the camera crew that they would be better employed dead- heading.
Happily we are told that the writer Robert Becker's book on her life is soon to appear. The stories he told of his work showed the more enviable occupational hazards of the research. Becker spent some time at Haseley in the mid- 1980s, taking notes and talking to Mrs Lancaster. But her cook produced such fine fare at luncheon, and the wines were so enjoyable, that Lancaster often found her amanuensis snoozing off his efforts in the library.
Nancy Lancaster, who has died aged 97, was a crucial figure in 20th-century interior design.
In the 1920s, as Nancy Tree, she was principally responsible for creating the "English country house look" - a romantic, patrician, uncluttered style which has had a profound effect on English interior design, notably through the influence of her company Colefax & Fowler.
A woman of wit, style and beauty, she looked like a Gainsborough duchess and was the star of many anecdotes - "Paint it the colour of elephant's breath," she once commanded a decorator.
All her work was notable for its sense of scale, boldness, wit and mellowness. Her houses seemed to convey the essence of all that was best in English country life.
She was totally committed to England, and at the beginning of the Second World War became a British citizen out of solidarity, but was American by birth, a survivor of the world of Henry James.
She was born Nancy Perkins in 1897, the daughter of Moncure Perkins of Richmond, Virginia. Educated in France, she first visited England before the First World War, staying with her formidable aunt Nancy Astor at Cliveden. In 1917 Miss Perkins married Henry Field, grandson of Marshall Field, the Chicago department store magnate, but was widowed within a year. Two years later she met Ronald Tree (heir through his mother to a fortune also derived from Marshall Field), whom she married in 1920. Ronnie Tree bought her Mirador, the beautiful house in Virginia that had belonged to her grandfather, and together they restored it. In 1926 the Trees returned to England and soon afterwards rented Kelmarsh in Northamptonshire, a house by James Gibbs, which they also refurbished. But it was at Ditchley in Oxfordshire, which the Trees bought from Viscount Dillon in 1933, that Nancy Tree came into her own. She and her husband made of that vast Palladian pile one of the most comfortable of country houses, with central heating and en suite bathrooms. Winston Churchill used to spend his weekends there during the Second World War, when the danger of bombing prevented him going to Chequers or Chartwell. But the Trees' marriage was dissolved in 1947, and their idyll at Ditchley came to an end. The next year she married Lt-Col Claude Lancaster, MP, the owner of Kelmarsh; they soon separated. It was at this time that Nancy Lancaster bought from Lady Colefax her decorating business and shop in Mayfair and began her far from tranquil collaboration with John Fowler, with whom she worked on such houses as Grimsthorpe, Mereworth and Wilton. They spent much of their time bickering over details of taste, and Lady Astor described them as "frankly the most unhappy unmarried couple I have ever met". In 1954 Nancy Lancaster bought Haseley Court, an 18th-century house in Oxfordshire, where she created a stylish and hospitable environment and flew the Confederate flag over the pediment. When she later sold the big house at Haseley (to Viscount Hereford) she continued to live in the former coach-house, which she converted with typical flair, and continued to tend the gardens, which were largely her own creation. As her London base she took over Wyatville's gallery, at the back of the shop in Brook Street, which she turned into one of the most glamorous rooms in London. She had two sons by Ronald Tree: Jeremy, the late racehorse trainer, and Michael, the painter and part-owner of Colefax & Fowler. Deborah Devonshire writes: I had a letter from Nancy suggesting that I write what I remember of Ditchley to be included in her book of houses. I said I would try. The next day came a postcard saying "I don't want a eulogy . . ." After over 50 years does memory play you false? Do you look back on events, people and places in a slanted sort of way, slanted to summers being fine, friends always there, jokes, laughter, pleasure and entertainments galore untouched by responsibility, living for the moment? Perhaps you do, and perhaps it is lucky that adolescent discontent and the humdrum things which occupy most days are lost or run together in a vague mist of recollection, and the special times remain, leap-frogging the rest. When I think of Ditchley all those years ago, the profound effect it had on me and must have had on everyone who went there, it is impossible to write anything but a eulogy. We lived at Swinbrook, 11 or 12 miles away. When I was a child I loved foxhunting above all else, and it was out hunting that I first saw Nancy. The meet of the Heythrop hounds was near our home, the unfashionable side of what was then an unfashionable hunt. The field consisted of people who lived in the Heythrop country, enlivened in term time by wild undergraduates from Oxford. Smart folk hunted in the Shires. I can't imagine what Nancy was doing there on a Saturday. I was trotting along on my pony when a big chestnut horse came thundering by. It was ridden on a loose rein by an elegant woman on a side saddle wearing the Heythrop green livery, faultless top hat and veil, the smartest thing imaginable. "Who is that?" I asked our old groom. "Mrs Tree from Ditchley on a blood 'orse." He didn't have to tell me that. Later, when we passed the few horseboxes there were in those days, I saw her second horseman, a cockade in his top hat, something I had never seen before. I first went to Ditchley when I was 16 or 17, having got to know Michael and Jeremy out hunting. But I had seen the house before the Trees bought it, empty and desolate, the park full of rabbits and sad white grass in the time of the agricultural depression of the early 1930s. When Nancy and Ronnie arrived it came to life, and there they created perfection. I realise now that Ditchley taught me an invaluable lesson - to notice, to look and to try to absorb and remember what was beautiful. It was certainly the first time I became aware of such things. Whatever Nancy touched had that hard-to-pin-down but instantly recognisable gift of style. Her genius (and that is no exaggeration) was her eye for colour, scale, objects and the dressing-up of them; the stuffs the curtains were made of, their shapes and trimmings, the china, tablecloths, knives and forks. Even the bathrooms were little works of art. Warm, panelled, carpeted, there were shelves of Chelsea china cauliflowers, cabbages, tulips and rabbits of exquisite quality. A far cry from the cracked lino and icy draughts to which I was accustomed. I had never seen such huge, square, down pillows as she went in for, nor Porthault sheets, decorated with carnations or trailing blue flowers and scalloped edges of the same colour; and the puffed-up eiderdowns covered in pale silk with tiny bows where a stitch held the down in place. The teatables had no cloths but were painted brilliant Chinese red. Anyone could have done that, but no-one else did. The rooms and their delectable contents were only part of the story. All that beauty could have been set up, and people would have delighted in it, but the whole of Ditchley reflected the personality of Nancy herself. She was the star on the stage she created. I can see her now, sitting bolt upright at the end of the dining-room table on one of the high-backed yellow chairs with Ronnie's initials embroidered on it, wearing something enviable with a brilliant bit of colour somewhere, debunking pomposity, making a comical mountain out of a molehill, taking over the table so that people stopped to listen and laugh. The Trees were supported by servants no less talented at making their guests comfortable and happy than the hosts. Mr Collins, the butler, was an extremely handsome man who was as polite to a 17-year-old girl as to a head of state. Such perfect manners continued through the housemaids, the kitchen staff, the grooms and the gamekeepers. The last were father and sons by the name of Starling, as neat and chirpy in their buttoned gaiters as the partridges they looked after. Cheerful Sunday morning visits to the chef and the stables were a pleasurable feature of staying at Ditchley. In my mind's eye there is Mr Collins, tall and splendid in his tailcoat, piling coal on the hall fire on a Monday morning when most people in his profession would thankfully leave such a task till the next invasion of guests. But at Ditchley you were made to feel they actually regretted your going. I know two other houses where you had that feeling: Houghton with Sybil Cholmondeley at the helm, and my sister Diana's Temple outside Paris. Nancy and Ronnie were also innovators in the garden. It was they who began the renaissance of old-fashioned roses, edging and designs in box and so much else which has been copied in the last 40 years and is so common now that you can be forgiven for forgetting who started it all. After the war began and there was no petrol I used to drive over from Swinbrook in a pony-trap, fetching the pony out of the field and draping its second-hand harness over it to jog along the empty roads. On arrival the stud groom fetched it from the front door. Going home the next day the pony looked quite different, shining all over, hooves dressed with oil, harness and trap polished as never before. When Winston Churchill used the house for weekends I was delighted by Jeremy's yawns and sighs and evident longing to go to bed when the PM started (and went on) talking till the early hours. (My own children did just the same years later when Harold Macmillan came to Chatsworth and talked till the cows came home.) At Ditchley we would have preferred to listen to Nancy. I have no doubt that, as in everv other family, you only had to scratch the surface to find worries, dramas and sorrows not far away. But such was the atmosphere created by the Trees that I found unalloyed pleasure in my visits there. How short a time this oasis of perfection lasted. I count myself very lucky to have seen it. In my long and spoilt life I have been to many beautiful places and met many fascinating people, but I have never seen the like of Ditchley and Nancy. "I don't want a eulogy . . ." she said. Sorry, but how could it be otherwise?
Published August 20 1994 in The Telegraph
September 15, 2005 The First Lady of English Country Style By MITCHELL OWENS in The New York Times WITH its shocking-pink lettering and dramatically cropped cover photograph of a youthful, tiara-topped woman in going-to-see-the-king garb, "Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style" by Martin Wood, is arguably the best-looking book to hit the coffee table since "Bright Young Things" was published in 2000. Unlike that plush but risible volume about young Manhattan socialites and their private domains, there is more to this venture than pretty rooms wrapped in sumptuous graphic design. The book, $60, is being published next month by Frances Lincoln. It isn't perfect, but then Lancaster's style wasn't, either. Elegant yet slightly moth-eaten rooms were Lancaster's forte, and though it would be foolhardy to declare her on the cusp of fashionable once again, some aesthetic-world rumbles indicate that a revival might be appropriate. The contemporary design movement casually known as "grandmother chic" - American quilts, painted furniture, cozy upholstery that has seen its share of loving wear and tear - might look to Lancaster, who died in 1992 at 96, as its mother superior. She did, after all, popularize lived-in rooms that looked neither too sumptuous nor too new, and even if some of her furnishings might be rarer than the average granny has ever possessed, Lancaster's often tattered sense of style has an ancestral impact that many grownup grandchildren can relate to. An American who lived in England for most of her life, Lancaster was an originator of what has come to be called the English country-house style, defined by mismatched chintz, well-worn gilt and deep-dish upholstery. She did not invent this pleasantly disheveled look. It combined standard aristocratic English decay with her memories of Virginia plantations plunged into genteel poverty by the Civil War. She also was not a decorator. The nuts-and-bolts work she pretty much left up to John Fowler, her business partner in the London design firm Colefax and Fowler, a leader both then and now. What Lancaster did possess, however, was an eccentric personality that verged on barking mad and an inspirational talent for creative housekeeping. With a style achieved through smart estate-sale shopping, the indulgent largesse of wealthy spouses and the contributions of a variety of decorators and architects, Lancaster's own homes, as well as the romantically unruly gardens she installed around them, have inspired fans (and imitators) in locations as unlikely as Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. Mr. Wood, an English garden designer who also has a winning way with words, examines Lancaster's half-dozen residences alongside their landscapes, from Ditchley Park, her most famous residence, to Coach House, a small outbuilding on an estate in Oxfordshire, where she died. It is a story that often has been told - most recently in Robert Becker's magisterially detailed 1996 biography - but Mr. Wood's melding of breezy narrative, lively reproductions of colorful fabric samples, and rarely seen archival images make Lancaster's life and oeuvre seem surprisingly new. Though he occasionally descends into breathlessness (describing Lancaster's red-painted tea tables as "something anyone could have done but no one else did" is just one wince-making example), Mr. Wood gives his subject her individual due by soft pedaling her association with Fowler and focusing on the masterful houses she created for herself. Long before she was recognized as a force in the world of decoration, Lancaster was just one of a swarm of children produced by the Langhorne sisters, effervescent Virginians whose daring horsemanship and hyperactive vivacity dominated Anglo-American society from the turn of the 19th century well into the 1950's. Her mother's sister Nancy Astor was the waspish Member of Parliament who famously told Winston Churchill that if she were his wife, she would poison his coffee. (The prime minister deftly riposted that under those circumstances, he would willingly drink it.) Another aunt became the wife of the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson of Gibson Girl fame, while a third had so many romances - premarital and otherwise - that she was described as having "a heart like a hotel." Like several of her cousins, Lancaster, who was orphaned as a child, carried a soupçon of psychic damage into adulthood. Her first marriage ended tragically, the next two unhappily, and her only daughter died at birth. In her 40's, the chronically depressed socialite, then bound to a husband she loved largely as a brother and buffeted by a series of family deaths, suffered her second nervous breakdown and was briefly institutionalized. The only successful relationships she maintained were with houses, and those she loved, madly, passionately and deeply. (Her last husband could only get her to relinquish his ancestral home by cutting off the electricity.) Thanks to the post-divorce generosity of her second husband, Ronald Tree, an heir to the Marshall Field department store fortune, Lancaster was able to buy Colefax and Fowler. Mr. Wood glides over most of the family dramas to concentrate on Lancaster's interiors. Even so, much of the material will be familiar to design groupies. But to his subject's credit, the author has stuffed the book's 200 pages with archival garden plans and unpublished photographs of interiors and exteriors, each crisply and colorfully reproduced, that give Lancaster's personal taste a legitimacy apart from her work with Fowler. Described by Lady Astor as the most unhappily unmarried couple in England, the often rancorous team, not unlike their American equivalents Sister Parish and Albert Hadley, is typically yoked as a Mutt and Jeff of design, a fate that Mr. Wood's monograph has carefully avoided. "If every piece is perfect the room becomes a museum and lifeless," Lancaster once explained when asked her secret to melding fine gilt and humble country. Formal interiors were taken down a peg with woven rush matting and chalky paint finishes. At Haseley Court, an 18th-century house that Lancaster bought in 1954, the dining chairs were left upholstered in the old parched leather she found them in, while at the head and foot of the oval dining table she eccentrically set a wing chair covered in a flowered cotton slipcover. A curious aspect of "Nancy Lancaster" is how its photographs illustrate that Lancaster's homes, even those in which she lived alone, had a gutsy, earthy sense of masculinity. Many of her imitators, however, have ignored this in favor of a musical-comedy variant on the English country-house look, with too much pink-flowered chintz and too many fanciful bows. Her friend Cecil Beaton called her a "strange combination of male and female," a charged observation that Mr. Wood quotes but leaves curiously unexplored. "Understatement is extremely important and crossing too many t's and dotting too many i's make a room look overdone and tiresome," Lancaster wrote. It is a point so many decorators (and clients) often forget. The observation has validity, whether one's taste is modern or traditional.
Romantic family history meets interior design and gardening in this life of Virginia-born Nancy Lancaster, who gets credit here for creating the English Country style--homey chintz in baronial spaces. Freelance writer Becker skillfully melds third-person biography and first-person memoir (based on Lancaster's writings and Becker's interviews with her) in this unusual narrative. Lancaster's life story begins in a cottage in Virginia, where she was born, and ends in a cottage in England, where she died in August 1994 at the age of 96. In between were three husbands and a life of riding, shooting, and shopping for the furniture and fixtures that would justify her reputation as an interior designer. It was Lancaster's talent to bring comfort and warmth to tired and gloomy manor rooms without damaging a sense of history and authentic detail. Born to the oldest of the famously beautiful Langhorne sisters--her aunts included Lady Astor and the wife of artist Charles Dana Gibson--Lancaster first married Henry Field (of Chicago's Marshall Field family). Widowed within five months, she next married Ronald Tree, a wealthy American who made his home in England and his reputation as a member of Parliament. It was as Mrs. Tree that Lancaster became known as a designer and hostess in a series of houses that culminated in Ditchley, the English manor where Winston Churchill spent weekends during WW II. After a divorce from Tree and a brief third marriage (to one Jubie Lancaster), she bought a decorating business, Colefax and Fowler, which became one of England's most prestigious firms. A manual of room arrangement and garden design combined with a view of a now-extinct lifestyle where newspapers were ironed for weekend guests that should capture students of design and history
One Example of a Cultural Guided Tour
The English World of Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler October 11-16, 2007
Sponsored by the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America.
The legendary partnership of Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler has been a profound and enduring “inspiration to decoration on both sides of the Atlantic,” according to Martin Wood, author of Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style and a forthcoming book on John Fowler.
Through arrangements made by David Brown of the British National Trust, Martin Wood and Classical Excursions, the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America is offering an exclusive six-day tour of the English world of Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler.
Lancaster said once jokingly that she loved houses more than people, especially houses with “good bones.” A Virginian by birth, she was, early on, influenced by the Classical Georgian style, particularly that of her beloved family home, Mirador.
Moving to England at the time of her marriage to Ronald Tree, she took advantage of her newly elevated social position and innate exquisite taste to create a distinctive English Country Style when she resided at Ditchley Park, Kelmarsh Hall and, later, at other country houses.
Social observer and friend Cecil Beaton described Lancaster’s “talent for sprucing up a stately but happy home and making a grand house appear less grand.” Her style was luxurious, comfortable and elegant.
Just as World War II was ending, she met John Fowler, who was a partner in the London decorating firm of Colfax and Fowler. Lancaster acquired it, thereby becoming Fowler’s new business partner. Both shared an eye, passion and the hunt for the beautiful. Though she never became a decorator for others, her American influence on the English Country House Style was of unqualified importance.
Coming from a very different background, Fowler “was not a rich amateur aesthete but a professional artisan,” says Martin Wood. “Their tastes were complementary and compatible. Nancy’s taste was bold and she liked ‘to preserve simplicity rather than over-polishing. Fashions are changeable. Taste is in realizing the essence of a place.’ His skill lay in understanding ‘unity and balance, of texture, colour and pattern; and he possessed a remarkable historical sense, as well as a rare gift for bringing life to rooms and houses.’”
Woven into the tour are Ditchley Park, Kelmarsh Hall and such Fowler commissions as Hambleden Manor, Sudbury Hall, Claydon House and Fenton House, as well as the famous Yellow Room, Lancaster’s office-sitting room at Colfax and Fowler. As part of the scenario is a tour and lunch at Cliveden, the home of Lancaster’s aunt, the formidable Lady Nancy Astor, where she, too, created the English Country look on a grand scale.
The tour includes lectures by Martin Wood and David Brown, who will also lead the tour, private receptions, teas and meals and stays at charming country inns and at the Capital Hotel, located in the heart of Knightsbridge, London.
Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire, where both a tour and lunch will be offered, was built in 1723 by the architect James Gibbs and reminded Lancaster of the Palladian country houses of Virginia. She managed to live here twice with different husbands. Among the must-sees are the Chinese drawing room and the library, with paneling designed by William Delano, who also transformed Mirador for Lancaster.
Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire. Grander, more celebrated and “not quite so liveable,” relates Lancaster, Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, was begun in 1720, and it took James Gibbs, Henry Flitcroft and William Kent many years to complete. Among the rooms to be viewed are the Great Hall, one of the grandest in England, with its reclining Muses atop gilded pediments; the Velvet Room, with walls upholstered in a striking Italian velvet and satin fabric and which Lancaster used as the basis for the furniture’s color scheme, and the White Drawing Room and its ancestral portraits, including King Charles II.
Clandon Park, Surrey, was built in the early 1720s for the Onslow family. Typical of English Palladianism, its lavish interiors are a surprise after viewing its austere exterior. Fowler restored and redecorated the house completely, utilizing his genius for color and stylish window treatments. The house is furnished with the Gubbay Collection of fine 17th and 18th century furniture, needlework, mirrors and porcelain. Also on view are two important collections of Meissen porcelain.
Hambledon Manor, Oxfordshire, was originally built in the 16th century and added to during the Regency period. It has some of Fowler’s finest work extant, with its stunning apricot, wine red, sage and sour green drawing room with black accents and its blue sitting room as two memorable examples.
Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, where Fowler worked for five years on a huge amount of detail, is one of the great houses of England, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh of Blenheim Palace fame. The building illustrates examples of 13th century, Tudor and Baroque architecture. Fowler also co-designed an unusual ornamental vegetable garden and orchard.
Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire . Martin Wood’s favorite Fowler project, 17th-century Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, was a redecoration supposedly by committee whose members included Fowler and the Duchess of Devonshire. She relates, “John made decisions. Sometimes he did not even tell us what he had in mind; we just arrived and found it done. Painting the staircase white, for instance: a very bold decision,” later discovered to be historically correct. Fowler said once that such decoration is always “a striving after a sense of life and not just slavish renewal of the misguided taste of the day before yesterday.”
Fenton House, Hampstead, is a compact William-and-Mary residence built in 1693. Bought by Philip Fenton in 1793, the house was redecorated by Fowler, utilizing antique furniture, a porcelain collection and the Benton Fletcher collection of antique musical instruments. The drawing room appears just as it did in the 18th century with satinwood furniture, embroidered firescreens, needlework and Worcester porcelain.
The Houses of Nancy Lancaster When the Virginia socialite moved to England, she changed the staid interiors of some of England’s grandest estates. After a tour of her work, architect James F. Carter reveals why he’s such a big fan.
Architect James F. Carter visited Ditchley Park to see firsthand how Nancy Lancaster transformed her second residence in England from a "cold, formidable house to a stylish, comfortable home," he says.
Edina van der Wyck in Southern Accents
“I’m more than a fan of Nancy Lancaster's,” admits Birmingham architect James F. Carter, who recently made a pilgrimage of sorts to her former homes in England. “Technically, I think I would be considered a groupie. Lancaster made an imprint on all the houses where she lived.” A wealthy Virginian who moved to England in the 1920s, Lancaster inhabited grand estates and redid their interiors, establishing the landmark style known as English Country. Ironically, it took an American to develop the disheveled yet gentrified look so associated with England. Relaxed chintzes. Casual elegance. A respect for the past tempered by the latest conveniences. A comfortable collision of design periods under one grand roof. These elements sum up Lancaster’s signature look, evoked by memories of her beloved home, Mirador, where she grew up in Virginia. “She brought a Southerner’s love of home and hospitality to England,” Carter explains. She performed her interior renovations with an uncanny natural ability. Having no formal training, she learned from those she hired to make her vision happen. “She was basically a client very much involved in the project,” Carter explains. “When she had draperies made, she learned a lot from the drapery person, for example. She was an enormously talented amateur.” The novice decorator, who died in 1994, eventually became an owner of the design firm Colefax and Fowler. “The company was a distraction for her, and it allowed her access to the trades,” says Carter. She teamed with John Fowler, a partner and designer in the firm, now considered an elder statesman of interior designers in England. Though they collaborated on many projects, the pair often clashed. “Fowler and Lancaster were both strong-willed and not afraid to argue. In fact, they were famous for their rows,” says Carter. “Lancaster was not your average well-behaved Southern girl. She could be spiteful. She could be difficult. She was a full-blown character. And yet, over the years, she enjoyed long relationships with many friends and admirers of her talents.”
The niece of England’s famed politician Nancy Astor, Lancaster made the most of her social connections when she married Anglo-American Ronald Tree and moved to England in the late ’20s. She and Tree rented the grand estate Kelmarsh Hall before moving to Ditchley Park. After her marriage to Tree ended in divorce, Lancaster returned to Kelmarsh when she married Col. Claude Granville Lancaster, owner of the estate. “She was probably more in love with his home than with the man himself,” says Carter. On his Classical Excursions tour, sponsored by The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, Carter visited Kelmarsh and Ditchley, along with Lancaster’s last residence, now privately held. “I saw houses that she had lovingly brought back to life and gardens that she created or enhanced,” says Carter, who also toured homes designed by Fowler, whom he also reveres. “Several of the houses were still owned by the people who lived there when the pair decorated them. It was exciting to see their work as it was originally designed.” As he went from house to house, Carter couldn’t help but envision the feisty Lancaster fussing about a wall color or conducting her “research.” “If she wanted to see a house, she’d find a way,” he says. “She would ride around the countryside with friends in her chauffeured Rolls, knock on the door of an estate she wanted to explore, pretending to be lost, and ask the butler if she could see the house before resuming her journey. Eventually she was found out. After she had recited her story to a butler at what she thought was an unexplored house, she was informed that she had been ‘lost’ at the same house the previous week when she had arrived at a different entrance. For once, the Southerner backed down.”
LEARNING FROM LANCASTER Touring the homes that Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler decorated was a rite of passage for Birmingham architect James F. Carter. Here’s what he took away from the tour.
Start with strong architecture. Carter admits that, as an architect, he likes rooms that have not only great decoration but also good architectural bones. “In most of the houses we visited, the bookcases, the paneling or moldings, and the interior architecture made the rooms,” he says. “The furniture was selected or designed to comple¬ment the architecture, not make up for a lack of it.” Resurrect and reinvent the past. “I like to reinterpret classic designs from the past, and you can’t do that without learning and understanding the work of the past,” he says. “Lancaster and Fowler did that. They would take an idea from the past, play around with it, and make it their own -- not trying to replicate it, but to reintroduce an old idea as a relevant new aspect of their work.” Do the unexpected. Lancaster always found a way to shake up the elements of classic design and create visual excitement. She used bold color and contrasting forms to enliven her surroundings. “In classical architecture, there are rules. But you need to know them in order to break them,” says Carter. Be bold. “Lancaster had enough personality and style for several people,” Carter says. “The dramatic and the unexpected came easily for her. She always created wonderful houses and gardens that showcased her love of history, sense of humor, and desire for comfort and style.”
By Deborah Devonshire
Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style Martin Wood
Ditchley was made glorious by the Trees. James Lees-Milne wrote, ‘Inside it is perfection. Nothing jars. Nothing is too sumptuous, or new.’ Geoffrey Jellicoe and Russell Page were engaged by Ronnie to remake the neglected garden. This they did on the original plans but, encouraged by their clients, they made some changes. A four-acre kitchen garden supplied the house, and the stables were full of horses, run in pre-1914 style. But under the smooth-running surface there were deep family ructions, and in 1947 that creative pair were divorced. Ditchely, as I remember it in the halcyon days, came to an end after only 16 years of fun, brilliant entertainment (Winston Churchill may have been staying, but Nancy was the entertainer) and splendour. Ronnie sold it in 1949.
Luckily for posterity the Trees commissioned the Russian artist Alexandre Serebriakoff to make a series of watercolours of the rooms, with the smallest details faithfully recorded, keeping the memory alive and showing the meticulous care Nancy took in everything. These illustrations are worthy of close study by a would-be decorator.
Estrangement from Ronnie and leaving Ditchley to his new wife to look after was a sorrowful but necessary change for Nancy. A new interest claimed her attention. In 1944 Ronnie bought Lady Colefax’s already well-known decorating business to occupy his ex-wife. With it came John Fowler. Her partnership with him (‘the unhappiest unmarried pair’ according to Lady Astor), constantly bickering but with an underlying affinity, mutual respect, non-stop smoking and much laughter, set the tone in the world of decoration. Colefax and Fowler was a double act of consummate skill, highly entertaining to watch when Nancy and John egged each other on with ideas bouncing from ceiling to floor. It was supported by the most talented workmen and women in the country.
In 1948 she married her long-time admirer Colonel Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster. He was their former landlord at Kelmarsh and she was delighted to return to that loved place. But the marriage was short-lived. She loved the house more than the husband, life together became impossible and eventually Jubie winkled her out by turning off the electricity.