Obituary: Nancy Lancaster

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The Independent Online
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.

(Photographs omitted)

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