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Review. Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, (BBC2) Episode 1/3

In the midst of moving house clutter, boxes, odds and ends etc., I found a spare bit of sofa and made time to watch the first episode of Servants: the True Story of Life below Stairs. Presented by Dr. Pamela Cox from the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, this first programme of three explored the employment hierarchies, working conditions and contemporary attitudes towards servants during the 19th century to the turn of the 20th with emphasis on domestic structures between country and town.

Basement passage at Erddig, Wales, 1973 (National Trust)

We were immediately introduced to Erddig in Wales – the most obvious example of servant culture readily accessible through the UK National Trust. This was country house levels of servitude where servant numbers could be overwhelming, and the mistress of the house had to be adept at managing several departments every day. We caught glimpses of portraiture, photography and verse depicting and describing members of the household staff from housekeeper and butler to carpenter and lady’s maid. Of course Erddig is renowned for its servant portraiture, and the relationships maintained by the Yorke family with their staff from the 1780s have been well documented; a fact of which Cox seemed to have been made aware. Consequently, this visual material became the pivot with which we moved off into the less well documented world of servant lives.

However, Erddig is an unusual case study. It is a small country house with its own set of values and traditions. That the Yorke family preserved so much of their unique relationship with their staff for so long only highlights the eccentricities of that particular household. The dominant generalisation concerning the 19th century country house and its household suggests that servants were seldom seen and never heard. The family spouted orders to nameless shapes and merrily continued with their daily routine above stairs whilst the mechanics of the house ticked away below. And yet, Cox did stress the existence of this ideal both at Erddig and beyond.

Employers were the literate class in most cases. The Erddig poems and ‘jingling rhyming couplets’ about the staff are very one-sided.[1] But this is precisely where Servants and Dr Pamela Cox’s presentation filled a gap in national television schedules. This was an academic take on a subject which has become dramatised and treated with soap opera style editing complete with cliff-hangers and female actors with porcelain skin. The reams of material culture at Erddig are examples of what can be found at archives and libraries across the country. It may not be quite so revealing in its content, but search and you shall find threads of forgotten events and stories which easily bring many of these houses to life. And while it probably didn’t shed any new light on the subject for academics, Servants is very likely to get viewers thinking about working conditions over a hundred years ago.

The Diary of William Tayler, Footman, 1837. (London, 1998 Edition)

The activities of scrubbing, polishing, mending, fetching and carrying were the norm for the majority of people who did not have others to do this for them. Being paid to do this kind of work did not lessen the burden of a 15 hour or more day, but having your own bed, or a place to keep your own things were the small perquisites of working away from home. Despite some heavy sentimentality in places, Cox cleverly added that being a servant offered instances of cultural freedoms which might have been denied to those who sought work elsewhere. As we moved from the country house and it complex hierarchies, Cox explored the rising trends for middle-class households to keep servants. Many came from the country to seek work in the large townhouses, and so this urban landscape provided the backdrop to different routines, fashions, foods, and entertainments. Servants watched from the sidelines, but they still formed their own ideals and opinions about the things that unfolded around them.

Perhaps it is symptomatic of current trends in British television and how history is portrayed through documentaries. In advertising the programme, great emphasis was placed upon statistics, and indeed throughout the programme we were treated to the private papers preserved by the descendants of those who had worked in service. Even Cox herself declared her maid-of-all-work heritage. As an exploration of ‘real’ lives, I would have expected more demonstrations of actual work, but Servants seems more subtle and of course, academic. The BBC probably suggested that they leave the dressing up and bed-making to Lucy Worsley and the wall-stroking to Dan Cruickshank with this series. For Cox, this programme is about recognising our own heritage; it’s about the ordinary, not the unusual. And with that, we were

Harriet Rogers, lady’s maid and then housekeeper at Erddig.

brought back to Erddig in order to see how servant working lives were often pitted against familial relationships and emotional dependencies. This is life, in any period. Laborious menial work might not be considered noble, and undertaking it for others has always been seen as submissive and miserable. As the programme develops over the next two episodes, these attitudes will become much clearer, I am sure of that, and as we move past our family histories towards the present day, what makes a ‘servant’ will no doubt have a few people shaking their heads.

Links:

Review by Michael Pilgrim in The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9574278/Servants-the-True-Story-of-Life-Below-Stairs-BBC-Two-review.html#

Review by Mark Sanderson at The Art Desk http://www.theartsdesk.com/tv/servants-true-story-life-below-stairs-bbc-two

There is no world outside Downton Abbey for The Sun http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/showbiz/tv/4553354/Dr-Pamela-Cox-explores-truth-of-servants-in-early-20th-Century.html

University of Essex review, with further links http://www.essex.ac.uk/news/event.aspx?e_id=4504

Brighton and Hove heritage the Regency servant http://rth.org.uk/histories/regency/daily-life/servants

References (Select bibliography as there is a vast number of books on this subject):

Samuel and Sarah Adams, The Complete Servant (1825)

Leonore Davidoff, Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class (Cambridge, 1995).

Erddig. Guidebook, National Trust (London, 1978)

Jessica Gerard, Country House Life: Family and Servants, 1815-1914 (Oxford, 1994).

Christina Hardyment, Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements. National Trust (London, 1992)

Edward Higgs, Domestic Servants and Households in Rochdale, 1851-1871 (1986)

Pamela Horn, Flunkeys and Scullions: Life Below Stairs in Georgian England (Stroud, 2004)

Pamela Horn, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant (Stroud, 2000)

Frank Edward Huggett, Life Below Stairs: Domestic Servants in England from Victorian Times, Part 2 (1977)

Pamela A. Sambrook, The Country House Servant. National Trust (Stroud, 2004)

Pamela Sambrook, Keeping Their Place: Domestic Service in the Country House (Stroud, 2007)

E. S. Turner, What the Butler Saw: Two Hundred and Fifty Years of the Servant Problem. (London, 1962).

Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall: A Domestic History of Erddig (London, 1980)


[1] Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall: A Domestic History of Erddig (Routledge, London, 1980), p. 7

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BBC Programme: Servants – The True Story of Life Below Stairs

Servants in 1912 at Erddig, Wales (copyright Erddig Archives, National Trust)

According to a new three-part programme about real servant stories presented by Dr Pamela Cox, it was only a century ago that 1.5 million British people worked as indoor servants. This is estimated to be more than worked in factories or on farms. Given that the population of Britain (as England, Wales and Scotland) in 1911 was over 40.7 million, this does not seem a large number – about 3.7 % of the population in Britain. And yet, there will be few British people with family roots in the United Kingdom who do not have a servant ancestor. I have stumbled across at least 6 in my tree alone working as such in 1911.

Most of this information comes directly from the Census Enumerators’ Books. I spend a great deal of time carrying out family history searches – it’s part of the day job. So inevitably, I have to do searches of the census in order to track familial movement, growth, and occupations. Likewise, when researching a country house between 1841 and 1911, the censuses provide me with an idea of how far people have travelled to find work at ‘the big house’. What the BBC programme promises to do however, is focus on the nature of employment in both town and country from the 19th century to the Second World War. The first episode will concentrate on the Victorian elite in their country piles, but careful consideration will be made of those aspiring new mistresses in their middle-class homes who were eager to emulate household routines of the elite and become the best hostesses. Good servant references required loyalty, but with other modes of employment and indeed other houses from which work could be sought, servant mobility was greater than ever.

Some useful statistics.

Using 1911 as our guide, here are the numbers for servant employment, whether it be had in the country or town (including private residences, hotels, and lodging houses and type of work such as dressing, cleaning, cooking, driving, gardening, gamekeeping etc.).

In England and Wales

Male indoor domestic servants: 54, 260

Male outdoor domestic servants: 226, 266

Female indoor domestic servants: 1, 359, 359

Other service – males: 107, 151

Other service – females: 374,577                                      

Total: 2, 121, 613

In Scotland

Male indoor domestic servants: 3, 721

Male outdoor domestic servants: 23, 973 

Female domestic indoor servants: 135, 052  (In Edinburgh, female domestic servants constituted 5.3 per cent. of the entire population; in Aberdeen, 2.6 per cent.; in Glasgow, 2.1 per cent.; and in Dundee, 1.4 per cent.)

Total: 162, 746

There are many more themes to explore and the BBC is likely to deliver a great deal of them for its viewers and iPlayer addicts like myself. Population and occupational statistics are not for everyone! So be sure to discover more about daily routines, eating habits, clothing, attitudes to domestic service and the development of the modern-day ‘live-out’ servant role. Enjoy! I will return, no doubt, with a review in the not so distant future.

A selection of advertisements commonly found in 19th century newspapers, these are taken from the Birmingham Daily Post, 1880.

Links:

BBC Online Magazine and the new series http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19544309

Review of Servants – The True Story of Life Below Stairs, The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9552656/Servants-The-True-Story-of-Life-Below-Stairs-BBC-Two-Preview.html#

A great place to start on the subject of census returns, where you will find statistics, travel writing, geographies and more, http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/ (supported by the University of Portsmouth).

Family Tree Forum, with good quotes about 19th century servants http://www.lewcock.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=186&Itemid=0

19th century servants’ quarters in town and country http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/the-servants-quarters-in-19th-century-country-houses-like-downton-abbey/

Pittsburgh newspaper The Catholic Journal and its rules for domestics in the 19th century http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sectionfront/life/useful-rules-for-servants-a-19th-century-guide-288851/

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Women’s History Month.

          The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the generations of women whose commitment to nature and the planet have proved invaluable to society.   (Taken from The Library of Congress website for Women’s History Month)

          Women’s History Month is not something generally celebrated in Britain – we are an apathetic sort by nature – and the idea of having a single month every year out of a whole twelve of them seems a little odd to celebrate 50 (or more) percent of the world’s population. Still, the country house and its relative subject areas are perfectly ripe for discussion on great female contribution. Not all wives and daughters were submissive creatures housing simple notions of motherhood and companionship, many could be forthright individuals who made life interesting for themselves and all around them. Furthermore, female servants were not always young delicate nymphs with idle streaks, as some were resilient country women who were proud hard-working people living away from their families and friends. There were women who grew up in a country house and made a difference to the wider world, but Women’s History Month has at its heart the celebration of female strength and diversity.

          In all my research over the years, several of those I’ve written about require greater attention. Often there are insufficient records to allow for deeper exploration, and you have to imagine what these people were like without documented proof. A favourite example however, was a woman called Isabella Ingram nee Machell (c.1670-1764) an heiress from Sussex who lived at Temple Newsam in Leeds as wife to the third Viscount Irwin (1666-1702) and her personal maid Mildred Batchelor. Some of Isabella’s personal papers have survived to this day and reveal Isabella to have been a somewhat diplomatic character; an interventionist, as well as intelligent, earnest and pragmatic. Mildred was her female companion who she may have employed once established in her Leeds home. She too was earthy, diplomatic and intelligent.

Isabella, Viscountess Irwin, nee Machell (1670-1764) attributed to John Closterman.

          Isabella was married to Arthur Ingram in about 1685, and although their families probably secured the match, their relationship was incredibly affectionate. Her portrait depicts her as fair and beautiful following not only the contemporary conventions of beauty, but even those of today. The portrait of Arthur shows him to have been a robust sportsman surrounded by his hounds and meaty game. These pictorial depictions are not far from the characters offered up by the surviving documentation. There was an air of refinement about Isabella which Arthur did not have, and their correspondence suggests their relationship was definitely based on opposites attract.

          Isabella and Arthur had nine sons until Arthur’s premature death in 1702. As a trustee and executor of her husband’s estate she was able to live at Temple Newsam. She chose not to remarry, perhaps in order to keep a close eye on her sons’ affairs. Isabella kept meticulous accounts, and scrutinised the daily household account books, signing each yearly summary. Her own pocket book demonstrates a careful nature, but also highlights her small extravagances such as losses at the card table, the purchase of ribbons and lace, and fine shoes. On the other hand, she was charitable and generous with those around her and would assist in the payment of a servant’s funeral expenses, or the cost of nursing a sick servant using her own cash. Isabella was also typically practical for an elite housewife of the time, and she got involved in the general running of the house, as well as monitoring the estate activities.

          Isabella had just become a mother again at the time of her husband’s death, and for a while she became very dependant upon her closest friends and most reliable servants. As well as the steward John Roades, Mildred Batchelor was one of these, and eagerly stepped up to help her mistress in household affairs. In particular, Mildred gave Isabella support when it came to the personal needs of the nine boys: arranging for their transport to school and ordering their clothing and laundry. There are surviving scraps of correspondence between the two women, and although they contain important notes concerning the health of Isabella’s sons or general household matters, there is a friendly tone to them. Their friendship was certainly strong, even when Mildred left service to marry John Roades in 1707. The following year she had a child for whom Isabella offered herself as godmother, and Mildred was never far away if her old mistress required some assistance.

          By 1718, Isabella decided to give up her residency at Temple Newsam after the marriage of her second son to a daughter of the Earl of Carlisle at Castle Howard. From her new home in Windsor, Isabella could manage the schooling of her younger boys but still remain in contact with her family in Yorkshire. Her sons held her in considerable awe and she could be extremely ill-tempered if crossed. Isabella even threatened the older boys with litigation in order to protect the interests of the younger ones. A quarrel with her second eldest son over payments of legacies to his younger siblings angered Isabella and she made her feelings clear in every which way possible. She even annotated a letter intended as a conciliatory device by the Temple Newsam steward with, ‘Friendly advice to give up my just writ from an ungrateful son wholly governed by ye proud house of ye Howards who never served anybody but for their own interest’.

          Isabella lived to be 94 years old. Perhaps this longevity could be put down to plenty of tea drinking in her lifetime, as her accounts testify to her varied consumption of several types of tea. With the birth of nine children, she was certainly a strong woman though, and definitely a formidable character. If you were fortunate to find good footing with her, she was undoubtedly a friend for life. Mildred Batchelor remained in Yorkshire, but it is likely she stayed in contact with Isabella after the latter moved to Windsor. There is patchy correspondence after this date, and whilst Isabella maintained her personal accounts and left documentation behind, Mildred disappeared into obscurity. Her life was more conventional in that she worked, became a wife, and then a mother and supported her husband. It could be suggested that Isabella allowed Mildred a brief historical presence in her surviving records, but this is no bad thing. The two women supported each other for several years, indeed Mildred was Isabella’s ‘right-hand woman’, so perhaps Isabella has been able to repay her with a different kind of longevity.

          Isabella was not a compliant submissive creature. Mildred was not a flighty servant girl. The women were great companions of similar ages who existed in each other’s lives when they needed each other the most; a country house enabled their partnership to evolve.

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Establishing the English Country House Style: Part II, Colefax and Fowler

‘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)

          In the thirties and forties the English country house style began to take shape and a recognisable form. It would become a style associated with a particular brand – Colefax and Fowler. Its key ingredients seemed a breath of fresh country air that mixed damasks and silks with crisp cotton chintzes, it made use of old and often under-utilised pieces of furniture and added elaborate porcelain pieces and ormulu with more modest handmade pottery. Its eclecticism suited the era of make-do and mend, whilst also embracing comfort and a refined eighteenth-century sensibility and elegance.

Colefax & Fowler catalogue sample Veryan Collection 2011 'understated glamour is a keynote throughout'.

           Previously, we took a peek at the design ethos of Nancy Lancaster. During the 1930s, and still married to Ronald Tree, Nancy and her husband were heavily involved in Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire – the house most associated with Nancy Lancaster’s interior design. Ronald had been captivated by the place when they had visited in 1933, and for the couple it perfectly represented the archaic country residence, ‘an unforgettable picture of magnificence and accumulated junk’. Like Kelmarsh Hall, Ditchley was mainly the work of James Gibbs but much grander. And, like Kelmarsh Nancy sought architectural advice from Paul Phipps. For the interior arrangements, Nancy and Ronald used their society connections and called upon the most prominent names of the day including Syrie Maugham, Stephane Boudin of Jansens in Paris and Lady Colefax.

          Not many of the rooms were drastically altered, but Nancy took it upon herself to chip away at walls in order to discover the ‘true’ colours intended for particular rooms when the house was first built in the eighteenth century. To these interiors Nancy added English needlework carpets, damask wall hangings and curtains and mixtures of Italian, English and French furniture acquired from auctions. Nancy was said to dislike the heavy, dark and imposing eighteenth-century English furniture particularly for bedrooms and sitting rooms, and so this eclecticism offered a ‘dash of French’ to an otherwise static space. Other pieces came from Kelmarsh and Nancy would make use of vibrant fabrics and upholstery to complement the muted tones of the greys and blues of the walls.

          As at Kelmarsh Hall, Nancy and Ronald set about modernising and making other spaces more comfortable. This included altering closet spaces on the first floor to provide bathrooms. Yet, nothing was completely overhauled. Architectural historian and diarist, James Lees-Milne wrote of his own visit in the 1930s, ‘Ditchley inside is perfection…Nothing jars. Nothing is too sumptuous, or new.’

The interior at Ditchley Park. Clockwise from top; Bedroom six with blue and white chintz, the Great Hall, the White Drawing Room

          At the same time Nancy and Ronald Tree were expending their energies at Ditchley, one of their assistant designers and advisors – Sibyl Colefax was maintaining her own business in London. A society hostess, Sibyl, Lady Colefax (nee Halsey 1874-1950) was renowned for her subtle and understated arrangements and designs. Inspired by the bohemian group of aristocrats and politicians, the Souls, Sibyl by her own admittance wanted to avoid grandeur and implement comfort and something of a natural flow to interior design. Her own house, Argyll House in Chelsea was an important social hub with guests reportedly including Fred Astaire, Wallis Simpson, Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill.

          The business venture had been borne out of the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Sibyl lost a great deal of money and decided to make the most of her many contacts as a means of staying financially secure. Her contacts became clients as she pursued her interest in interior design, and within a few years she had set up Sibyl Colefax Ltd with Peggy Ward, (later the Countess of Munster) as her partner. In 1938, Peggy urged Sibyl to go into partnership with the relatively young John Fowler whose own experiences were vastly different to his new female business partner.

          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

Sample of the 'Berkeley Sprig' chintz which would become the logo for Colefax and Fowler

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 Yellow Room at Avery Row/Brook Street, London

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. This aspect will be part of Establishing the English Country House Style; Part III, The Legacy.

References:

Martin Wood, John Fowler: Prince of Decorators (2007)

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

Links:

Colefax and Fowler website today http://www.colefax.com/

Ditchley Park website http://www.ditchley.co.uk/

A peep at the relationship between Lancaster, Colefax and Fowler http://www.nh-design.co.uk/2011/01/mrs-nancy-lancaster-great-milton-360/

A blogged piece about Colefax & Fowler book July 2007 http://bibliostylebooks.blogspot.com/2007/07/colefax-fowler-best-in-english-interior.html

Instructive review by Donhead Publishing on John Fowler http://www.donhead.com/new_introductions_and_reviews/john_fowler_review_1.htm

Christie’s Sale dedicated to John Fowler http://www.christies.com/presscenter/pdf/08092006/104455.pdf

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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.

 ******

          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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