Establishing the English Country House Style; Part I, Nancy Lancaster

‘You never wanted to have only one mouvement thing like the Savonnaire rug that would stand out. You must have mouvement everywhere.’

Nancy Lancaster, ‘Beautiful Houses Remembered’, Architectural Digest, (December 1980) Quoted in Martin Wood, Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style. (2005), p. 35

          

A closet room at Ditchley Park,(watercolour by Alexandre Serebriakoff c.1948)

The English Country House Style was an aesthetic established in the 1920s. Its ideals were founded on elegance, taste and comfort; its colours, themes and arrangements and can still be seen in interior design today. It is Nancy Lancaster who is most associated with the English Country House Style, though there were many others. Many worked together on projects, others established businesses together as interior designers, and some simply socialised with one another. Above all, the English Country House Style was about reinstating the spirit of a place without the trappings of stately opulence. Its Englishness lay in the inspiration found in existing architecture – particularly Palladian country houses and the fondness for clutter and shabby edged upholstery. Its place in time also serves as a reminder of how the English country house and its owner were subject to irreversible financial difficulties during the interwar period and struggled to keep up with a changing society.

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          Born and raised a Virginian, Nancy Lancaster (nee Perkins, 1897-1994) already had family connections with England mainly through her aunts – three of the five elegant Langhorne sisters. Her aunt Nancy (1879-1964) married Waldorf Astor (1879-1952) and became Viscountess Astor of Hever and was the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons. Phyllis (1880-1937) married Robert Brand (1878-1963) Lord Hampden, later Baron Brand of Eydon in Northamptonshire. Nora (1889-1955) married Paul Phipps, an English architect whose partnership with Oswald Partridge Milne in 1919 provided a practice which consisted mainly of country house work; Nancy would later ’employ’ her uncle to assist with her own projects. Nancy’s own mother was the eldest of the Langhorne sisters, whose own interior designs were, ‘before her time. She papered or painted her rooms in off tones of grey. One range of colour throughout made the space seem larger than  if the rooms were all of different colours.’

           Nancy herself, was married three times, and in many ways the impact of her own interiors and resulting style were the product of these marriages. Firstly she married in early 1917, Henry Field – one of the most eligible bachelors of the day. They would be married for only five months when Henry died of blood poisoning after a routine operation to remove his tonsils. Stricken by grief, and having suffered a probable breakdown, Nancy eventually spent some time in 1918 with family in England. It was on the trip over that she met with Ronald Tree, a cousin of Henry Field, and someone who had previously shown great interest in Nancy. They would be married two years later at St James’s Church in Piccadilly but divorced by 1947. Her third marriage was to Lieutenant Colonel Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster in the summer of 1948. A Member of Parliament for Fylde in Lancashire, ‘Jubie’ was the owner of Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire and had already known Nancy when she and Ronald Tree rented the property for themselves as part of a repairing lease between 1928 and 1933.

          Nancy’s style and tastes had their origins in her family home of Mirador in Albermarle Country, Virginia. Built as a plantation house in the 1830s, Mirador is typical of a Virginian plantation home with four rooms on each floor and a central through hall. It became Nancy’s in 1922 and she set about decorating her home immediately with advice from family friend and architect William Adams Delano (1874-1960). The first

Mirador Entrance Front (Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1926)

improvement to make at Mirador was to restore the entrance front and realign the symmetrical details to give a more ‘neo-classical or Virginian’ aspect. Bigger bathrooms were added, the staircase was opened up with the use of a large skylight, a drawing room was incorporated into the arrangement of rooms on the first floor and each room received a new lick of paint. Crucially, Nancy’s own heritage at Mirador meant that she wished to retain a degree of comfort and a feeling of inherited sensibility. She used several pieces of furniture that had stayed in the house from her grandparents’ day but added faded fabrics and upholstery from neighbourhood sales and antique warehouses. These were arranged in a style influenced by Ogden Codman’s New York townhouse (‘an elegant Parisian ensemble’) which Nancy and Ronald Tree rented when they were first married between 1920 and 1922. Altogether, the stylistic arrangement at Mirador was a mix of two or three influences. On the one hand it was informed by European ideals as viewed by Delano and Codman who had both worked in the Beaux-Arts tradition the characteristics of which consisted of Classical architectural details with heavy influences from French and Italian Baroque. On the other hand, Nancy had a great deal of involvement in retaining the flavours of her family home, partly because of the boundaries set out by her aunts who did not wish to see massive changes, but also because she yearned to improve the house in-keeping with notions that rooms must look as though they had been used and enjoyed for many years – a certain patina. This would be her criteria of ‘design mouvement’ in later years, eventually making it part of a list of seven points which she felt were important for her particular interior design ethos;

I never think that sticking slavishly to one period is successful, a touch of nostalgia adds charm. One needs light and shade because if every piece is perfect the room becomes a museum and lifeless.

        The move to England in 1927 was the result of her second husband Ronald’s attempts to establish himself in elite society. He had never really been successful whilst in America and sought to make the most of his English roots. In 1926 he was offered the joint mastership of the Pytchley Hunt in Northamptonshire – a position which would offer strong connections within the rural community. Nancy was supposedly reluctant to make the move at first, but agreed so long as she could keep Mirador and return to it each year.

          In England, Nancy would be involved in the design of about half a dozen houses, or projects, during the rest of her life including Kelmarsh Hall, Ditchley Park and Haseley Court; with so many connections Nancy renounced her American citizenship in 1948. However, by 1927, the Trees needed a place which projected Ronald’s position in elite society, and to begin with they rented Cottesbrooke Hall, Northamptonshire, but Nancy did not feel at home there. After about a year

Kelmarsh Hall

Kelmarsh Hall Entrance Front

they began renting Kelmarsh Hall from Colonel Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster. To Nancy it was perfect and was very much the English version of her beloved Mirador. This was simple Palladian architecture at its best. Built by James Gibbs (1682-1754) in about 1730, its arrangement of rooms was similar to that of Mirador, but its size compared to the Virginian house was far grander and contained far more complex decorative schemes. This was a challenge to Nancy, but her first priority lay with Kelmarsh’s need for modernisation. With the assistance of her uncle Paul Phipps, Kelmarsh gained proper heating, electric light and several bathrooms. As for the main interior furnishings, Nancy enlisted the help of Mrs Guy Bethell a partner in the celebrated shop, E. Elden just off Grosvenor Square in London. The creativity of Nancy, Phipps, Mrs Bethell and the painter Mr Kicks gave Kelmarsh Hall a softened elegance. Nancy had used similar techniques to those she had used at Mirador such as worn fabrics like leather, chintz and silk and odd-shaped furniture, but added Bethell’s chic new trimmings to the bedrooms and saloon. Most important was her use of colour throughout which attempted to replicate some of the original tones found in the house or elsewhere. The pink hue of the hall was inspired by the dining room at Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk (demolished in 1961), the greens and greys of the saloon were inspired by Houghton Hall in Norfolk, with the Chinese wallpaper of the drawing room acquired directly from Kimberley Hall, Norfolk.

           Nancy and Ronald left Kelmarsh in 1933 when the Wall Street Crash and the Depression crept across their rural idyll, and Ronald had to resign as Master of the Hunt. Although they had funds in America, the Trees were able to invest in another property – Ditchley Park before the end of the year. Kelmarsh Hall would be granted back to Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster and when the repairing lease was finally up in 1938, much of the furniture was sold at auction. ‘Jubie’ bought considerable lots and restored them to the arrangements set out by Nancy; many still remain in the house today. Ditchley Park would become one of the most celebrated houses connected with Nancy Lancaster, and shall be discussed in Establishing the English Country House Style: Part II, but from the moment Nancy began her modernisation of Mirador in 1922 the ideas were already in motion.

 

The Hall and Chinese Drawing room at Kelmarsh (Country Life images)

  Nancy Lancaster was by no means the sole designer, and although her name is most synonymous with the English Country House Style, Nancy should be regarded rather more of a facilitator of the style. The scene had been set and merely needed its players; Nancy was the lead in this instance and exploited the drama of an older world at a time when English rural society was on the verge of changing forever. To this style, Nancy brought her fondness for her own Virginian home and an inherited enthusiasm in architecture and interior design. Her own heritage included several links to architects and interior designers, and in every instance there was a hint of country house sophistication and elite elegance. Her social connections led her to further specialists like Mrs Bethell and her shop off Grosvenor Square – an established area of London for all things design related. For Nancy Lancaster, Kelmarsh Hall was only the start, and her design ethos spread rapidly during the Second World War. She would become owner of the decorating business Colefax and Fowler in 1944, regain hold on Kelmarsh, albeit for a short time, and eventually have her own English country house at Haseley Court by 1954. The English Country House Style was a formulation of ideals set out in elite society during the interwar period and reflected the tastes of a generation born at the end of the nineteenth century. Any hint of Englishness was the result of fashionable tastes dictated by those who chose to reminisce about a romantic yet eclectic countryside ideal.

 

References:

Martin Wood, Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style. (2005)

Links:

Review of Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style by Martin Wood (2005) from The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/15/garden/15nancy.html?pagewanted=all

The Houses of Nancy Lancaster article from Southern Accents http://www.southernaccents.com/architecture/architectural-essentials/houses-nancy-lancaster-00400000035775/

Nancy Lancaster obituary, August 1994 from The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/6021150/Nancy-Lancaster.html

Interior designer’s blog with nice piece on Nancy Lancaster, includes some good photos http://littleaugury.blogspot.com/2009/11/tree-inheritance.html and a more whimsical look at the chattels required for the English country house look http://littleaugury.blogspot.com/2009/12/for-christmas-in-tradition-of-nancy.html

Grosvenor Square in modern times – twentieth-century shops and interior design http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=41849

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One response to “Establishing the English Country House Style; Part I, Nancy Lancaster

  1. Pingback: Eltham Palace (Kent): so this is where Henry VIII grew up | Visiting houses & gardens

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