Lancaster, Nancy (1897–1994)

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Lancaster, Nancy (1897–1994)

American-born socialite whose influence led to the rise of the English-country style of interior decorating. Name variations: Nancy Tree. Born Nancy Perkins in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1897; died in Oxfordshire, England, in 1994; daughter of Lizzie Langhorne and T. Moncure Perkins (a meat-packing executive); niece of Irene Langhorne Gibson (1873–1956) and Nancy Witcher Astor (1879–1964); married Henry Field, grandson of department-store magnate Marshall Field, in 1917 (died 1918); married Ronald Lambert Tree (later a Conservative member of Parliament), in 1920 (divorced 1947); married Claud G. Lancaster (a British politician), in 1947 (divorced); children: (second marriage) Michael and Jeremy.

Although Nancy Lancaster refused to call herself a decorator, her talent for cultivating the beauty of her stately homes and gardens into an appearance of "pleasing decay" gave rise to the popular English-country style of decorating. A mixture of bright colors, sun-faded fabrics, and furniture arranged without regard to historical periods, this studiedly casual and highly influential look stood in marked contrast to the rigid formality prevalent in pre-World War II upper-class British interior design.

Lancaster was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1897, the daughter of Lizzie Langhorne and T. Moncure Perkins, a meat-packing executive. The family included two highly distinguished aunts: Nancy Witcher Astor , who would become the first woman elected to the British House of Commons in 1919, and Irene Langhorne Gibson , the original "Gibson girl," who through the ubiquitous illustrations of her husband Charles Dana Gibson was the epitome of idealized American womanhood during the Gilded Age. After the deaths of her parents when she was 15, Nancy was raised by Irene Gibson.

With her second husband, Lancaster moved to England in 1926, but her Virginia upbringing remained a constant influence throughout her life. The innovative decorating style she created drew upon her memories of the "romantic disrepair" of the plantations of her beloved Virginia, and gained especial popularity with the British upper classes which, battered by two world wars, were undergoing a transformation not unlike that of the post-Civil War Virginian aristocrats. She is credited with bringing vitality to the staid style of English decorating, and she inspired generations of European and American designers, including Mario Buatta and Sister Parish . Lancaster also raised old-fashioned roses and was regarded as a world-class hostess; among her guests were painter John Singer Sargent, fashion and portrait photographer Cecil Beaton, Baron De Meyer, Horst P. Horst, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon of England. Winston Churchill often took weekend refuge at her 3,000-acre estate in Oxfordshire during the London blitz in World War II.

In 1944, Lancaster became co-owner of the design firm Colefax & Fowler in London, which decorated the homes of elite clients. Still preferring not to call herself a professional, she continued working into the mid-1980s. Nancy Lancaster died in her sleep in 1994, age 96.


Becker, Robert. Nancy Lancaster: Her Life, Her World, Her Art. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

"Nancy Lancaster, a Leader in Interior Design, Dies at 96," in The New York Times Biographical Service. August 22, 1994.

Rebecca Parks , Detroit, Michigan

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Lancaster, Nancy (1897–1994)

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