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.
Lancaster's innate taste was only complemented by John Fowler's (her decorator partner) sense of color and knowledge of historic interiors. Although she always believed that a room should never look "decorated', she created this list of 7 rules to follow to make a room look "comfortable": 1- In restoring a house, one must first realize its period, feel its personality, and try to bring out its good points; 2- Decorating must be appropriate; 3- Scale is of prime importance, and I think that oversized scale is better than undersized scale; 4- In choosing a color,one must remember that it changes in different aspects; 5- 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; 6- 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; 7- 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.
To these guidelines, Lancaster always added her magic ingredients: open fires, candle lights, and masses of flowers. She also included antiques into each of her comfortable rooms, a love of which descended from her grandparents. While she was married to Ronald Tree, he helped her decorate their house. He was mainly in charge of major pieces of furniture and paintings, but Lancaster was in complete charge of the way their house actually looked- the choice of fabrics and the arrangement of furniture. The house was covered in hundreds of yards of fabrics, which included silks, velvets, damasks, and brocades. Lancaster wanted the fabrics to get worn from the sun and obtain a life of their own.
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.
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.
Nancy Lancaster died in 1994 and is buried in Virginia, between her first husband and the infant daughter from her second marriage.
- Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style, by Martin Wood, Frances Lincoln Ltd, London 2005.
- Oxford DNB theme: Glamour boys
- History Lives at Ditchley and Bletchley - The Churchill Centre
- John Fowler: Prince of Decorators, by Martin Wood, Frances Lincoln, London 2007
- Lewis, Adam.The Great Lady Decorators. 1st Ed. New York, NY:Rizzo international Publications, Inc.,2010.Print.
- Becker, Robert. Nancy Lancaster; Her Life, Her World, Her Art. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.