Southern Comfort

Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire

Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire

It’s not uncommon for people to fall in love with a house, but it’s exceptional to marry its owner.

Nancy Lancaster (1897-1994), the daughter of a Virginian railroad magnate, had first married the grandson of the founder of Marshall Field, the Chicago department-store, and secondly his cousin, Ronald Tree, who bought Nancy’s grandfather’s home, her birthplace, Mirador, which she improved.

The Trees moved to England in 1927 and rented first Cottesbrooke Hall, Northamptonshire, and then took a ten-year repairing lease of the nearby Kelmarsh Hall, originally designed by James Gibbs (c1727-32), and owned by Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster.  Nancy modernised and redecorated the place, expressing her exceptional talent for sumptuous, under-stated design.  In the six years that the Trees lived at Kelmarsh she transformed the house and its garden.

In 1933, the year that Ronald Tree became Conservative MP for Market Harborough, the couple moved to Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, also by Gibbs, where Nancy collaborated with Lady Sybil Colefax to turn a cold, neglected Palladian house into an idyllic home that epitomised upper-class comfort and hospitality.

Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, contributing to Nancy Lancaster’s Daily Telegraph obituary [August 20th 1994], describes the influential effect of knowing Ditchley in Nancy’s time:

Her genius (and that is no exaggeration) was her eye for colour, scale, objects and the dressing-up of them; the stuffs the curtains were made of, their shapes and trimmings, the china, tablecloths, knives and forks.

Even the bathrooms were little works of art.  Warm, panelled, carpeted, there were shelves of Chelsea china cauliflowers, cabbages, tulips and rabbits of exquisite quality…

The tea tables had no cloths but were painted brilliant Chinese red.  Anyone could have done that, but no-one else did.

Towards the end of the Second World War Ronald began an affair, and the Trees divorced in 1947.  A year later Nancy married her own lover, the owner of Kelmarsh Hall, ‘Jubie’ Lancaster, and moved back to what she described as her favourite home.

In 1950 she bought out Sybil Colefax’s business, Colefax & Fowler, and began a tempestuous professional partnership with the decorator John Fowler.  This association produced some of the most influential decorative schemes of the mid-twentieth century – Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, Mereworth Castle, Kent (then owned by Nancy’s son, Michael Tree) and Wilton House, near Salisbury.  Their trademark cool eclecticism, innovative, subtle use of colour and preoccupation with comfort have become known as the “English Country House Style” – an appropriate generalisation for the work of a British designer and an American home-maker.

John Fowler’s theatrical instructions to owners, National Trust grandees and artisans alike, are well known, yet Nancy could hold her own.  On one occasion she told a decorator, “Paint it the colour of elephant’s breath.”  She specified such colours as caca du dauphin and vomitesse de la reine.  It’s remarkable what one can get away with in French.

Even though their pioneering investigations into historical decoration, scraping surfaces with a threepenny bit, have now been superseded by more sophisticated research techniques, their creative tension between historicism and creativity, and masculinity and femininity, define a turning point in British decorative art.

However much she loved Kelmarsh, her third marriage lasted only until 1953:  on her divorce she moved to Haseley Court, Oxfordshire.  After a fire in 1971 she sold the Court and moved into the adjacent Coach House for the rest of her long life.

Jubie Lancaster’s sister Cicley set up the Kelmarsh Trust [] to maintain the house and its estate after her death in 1996.

The comprehensive study of Nancy Lancaster’s life and work is by Martin Wood, Nancy Lancaster:  English country house style (Frances Lincoln 2005).


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