It is perhaps an irony that the queen of English Country style was in fact American.
Born in Virginia, Nancy Perkins was from a socially agile family; she looked like a Gainsborough duchess and was educated in France, so whilst her roots were firmly American, her upbringing was far from it. Her first taste of England and its map of country houses was just before the First World War when staying with her formidable aunt, Nancy Astor at Cliveden; a country house regarded for its style, gossip and scandalous history. In 1920 she married Ronald Tree, a British politician who also had roots in America. He bought her Mirador, a beautiful house in Virginia, which became the first property for Nancy to restore and make into a home. Her style was exquisite, bold and full of whimsy.
In 1926 Nancy and Ronald moved back to England and rented Kelmarsh in Northamptonshire, which would soon become a house synonymous with Nancy’s ditzy yet elegant style. It was at Kelmarsh that she cemented her love affair for all things chintz, whimsy, art and frivolity. From Kelmarsh Nancy and Ronald graduated to Ditchley in Oxfordshire, a home that they would make the most comfortable of country houses with central heating and even en-suite bathrooms. It was so comfortable and was regarded as such a haven that even Sir Winston Churchill would retreat to Ditchley when the threat of bombs drew too near.
A dissolved marriage later and Nancy Tree briefly met and married Lt-Col Claude Lancaster, who did in fact own Kelmarsh. However, their marriage was short and they soon separated. It seemed that whilst Nancy found creating a home an effortless affair, her love life was somewhat more tumultuous. But from this, Nancy had grown a tough outer skin and focused more on her career as an interior decorator. Soon after her short-lived marriage to Claude, Nancy bought from Lady Colefax her decorating business and shop in Mayfair and began her collaboration with John Fowler, with whom she worked on houses including Grimsthorpe, Mereworth and Wilton. John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster spent much of their time bickering over details in taste; much like a married couple but without the romantic connection. It seemed this was a partnership that Nancy could work with, finally.
It was this flourishing partnership with John Fowler which we know Nancy for best. Her impressive social connections brought Colefax and Fowler into a grand new era. Together John and Nancy pushed boundaries and redefined the English country house style. Her iconic “yellow room” was located in her flat above the shop on Brook Street and remains as instantly recognisable as it was then in the late 1950s when it was created. Her use of Chinoiserie at Kelmarsh was prolific and no doubt has encouraged designers to be bolder with patterns, textures and blending cultures since.
Nancy preferred to describe herself as a “percolator of ideas” rather than an interior decorator. Her eclectic approach to designing a space and making it a home helped break away from the drudgery of post-war interior design. When a nation was recovering from the financial implications of war and heeded a more conservative approach to living, Nancy was making waves, encouraging those to be bold and adventurous, to push the boundaries. Perhaps it is because of this attitude towards living that has entrenched her in the design hall of fame, influencing designers, artists and crafts people of today become their own “percolators of ideas”.