During the last several years, Gary and I have been working on a project in London, a first for Gary McBournie Inc.. The project, which we shall soon share, has afforded us the opportunity to visit some of the wonderful historic properties of the National Trust located in the picturesque English countryside. As a result, we have both developed a renewed interest in English Country House style, an aesthetic developed in the 1920's which pushed aside the stiffness of the Victorian era in favor of the more relaxed spirit of English country life. While elegant and tasteful, the style is grounded by its goal of reinstating the spirit of a place without the trappings of great wealth. This was particularly significant as many of the owners of these country houses were suffering from irreversible financial difficulties encountered after the world wars. Interestingly enough, the person given large credit for developing and promoting the English Country House style is American-born Nancy Lancaster who was highly-influenced by her childhood in the antebellum south.
Lancaster was born in 1897 as the eldest daughter of Thomas Moncure Perkins, a Virginia cotton broker, and his wife Elizabeth Langhorne, at Mirador, a Southern plantation house owned by her maternal grandfather near Charlottesville, Virginia. Mirador had once been a grand Southern home but, like so many others of its kind, had fallen into disrepair after the Civil War. It would provide Nancy with an intense enthusiasm for a "worn grace" and a design style that replicated the tastes of different generations and their household belongings.
As a child, Nancy was brought up partly in Richmond, Virginia and partly in Europe. Her parents separated in 1912 and when they both died in 1914, Nancy went to live in New York City with her aunt Irene Gibson, the wife of artist Charles Dana Gibson. She first visited England before the First World War, staying with her aunt Nancy Aster, a British politician, at Cliveden.
In 1917 Nancy married Henry Field, grandson of department store magnate Marshall Field, who died five months after the marriage. Two years later she met Ronald Tree, a journalist and investor who also happened to be a cousin of her first husband. The pair were married in 1920 and spent their early married life living in the United States, first in New York City and then at Mirador, where they worked with architect William Delano to restore the property. Delano was well known for his belief that an architect should manage both the interior and landscape architecture. It was from him that Nancy learned the importance of making the garden an extension of the house.
In 1926 the Trees moved to England and settled in Northamptonshire where Ronald Tree obtained a seat as a Conservative MP for Harborough. During this period, the couple rented several homes, including Kelmarsh which they also refurbished. When Ronald came into his inheritance from his mother in 1933, the Trees purchased Ditchley Park, an early 18th-century mansion in Oxfordshire. They restored the house over a two year period with the help of Lady Sibyl Colefax and the French decorator Stephane Boudin of the Paris firm Jansen. Nancy installed modern plumbing and central heating to combat the English damp and bathrooms were transformed into welcoming retreats with carpets, books, paintings and open fires. The Trees enjoyed many happy times at Ditchely, entertaining guests ranging from politicians to writers to entertainers. 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. Ditchley was sold when the Trees divorced in 1947 and is now used as a centre for international learning.
In 1947 Nancy returned to Kelmarsh when she married Claude Granville Lancaster, MP., the owner of Kelmarsh. The marriage was short-lived and they divorced in 1953. Kelmarsh now operates under the custodianship of the Kelmarsh Trust and is open to the public for tours and for use as an event venue.
It was in 1944 that Nancy bought Sybil Colefax's decorating business and acquired John Fowler as her business partner. The business relationship between Nancy and John was regarded as somewhat love/hate and they spent much of their time bickering over details of taste. Lady Astor described them as "frankly the most unhappy unmarried couple I have ever met". That said, their partnership thrived on their mutual appreciation of the graceful appeal of age and their mutual fondness for combining comfort and elegance in the way a room must be arranged. They were able to bring together the essential design elements of the English country house style- faded damasks, silks and chintzes, a strong palette of colors, a mix of furniture from various historical periods and an atmosphere of coziness. They both liked to use 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.
One of the most celebrated projects of the Lancaster-Fowler collaboration was the apartments above their shop in Avery Row/Brook Street, London. Pieces bought for the shop that had never sold- from country house auctions, antique dealers and warehouses- and other pieces from Nancy's own houses were installed throughout the apartment. The yellow drawing room was considered the highlight. Measuring 46 feet by 16 feet with double doors at both ends, the room contained a barrel-vaulted ceiling which was painted in an off-white. Mirrors were added to the door surrounds to add height and painted festoons were added above the painted marbled cornice. The yellow walls were a rich buttercup yellow achieved through the application of numerous coats of paint on to which John Fowler then applied layers of glaze which gave a deep shimmer in the light. The room was always filled with flowers.
In 1950 Nancy was forced to sell her beloved Mirador and in 1954 she bought Haseley Court, an 18th-century house in Oxfordshire. She renovated and decorated the house with the help of John Fowler. When she later sold the big house at Haseley, she converted the coach house into a residence and continued to on the property. She also continued to tend the gardens, which were largely her own creation.
Nancy Lancaster died in 1994 and is buried in Virginia between her first husband and the infant daughter from her second marriage.
Lancaster believed that a room should never look decorated. To promote a sense or relaxation, she created this list of seven rules to make a room look comfortable:
In restoring a house, one must first realize its period, feel its personality, and try to bring out its good points.
Decorating must be appropriate.
Scale is of prime importance, and I think that oversized scale is better than undersized scale.
In choosing a color, one must remember that it changes in different aspects.
Understatement is extremely important, and crossing too many T's and dotting too many I's make a room look overdone and tiresome. One should create something that fires the imagination without overemphasis.
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.
A gentle mixture of furniture expresses life and continuity, but it must be a delicious mixture that flows and mixes well. It is a bit like mixing a salad. I am better at mixing rooms than salads.
In addition to these guidelines, Lancaster always added masses of flowers, candle lights and open fires.
Some resources for additional information:
Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AN7PJA4aq_g
Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style, Martin Wood, https://www.amazon.com/Nancy-Lancaster-English-Country-House/dp/0711224293
Nancy Lancaster: Her Life, Her World, Her Art, Robert Becker, https://www.amazon.com/Nancy-Lancaster-Her-Life-World/dp/0394567919/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490120980&sr=1-1&keywords=nancy+lancaster
Colefax and Fowler: The Best in Interior Decoration, Chester Jones, https://www.amazon.com/Colefax-Fowler-Best-Interior-Decoration/dp/0821217461/ref=pd_sim_14_5/160-1506503-2470747?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=5ABG6H6BB09G1DNHCJZW