House and Garden
Country house epitomised in a sofa

Design icons: how Nancy Lancaster epitomised the country house in a sofa

Continuing our series on timeless icons of the design world, Serena Fokschaner explores the country house classic that is Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler’s charming ‘Haseley’ sofa

 

Alistair Bennett

 

The Haseley sofa has been a staple of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler’s London showroom since the 1950s. The precise origins of the shapely but useful two-seater are hazy. But in style and spirit it has all the hallmarks of a Nancy Lancaster design. The US-born socialite and decorator bought the interiors business founded by Lady Colefax in 1947. With her business partner John Fowler, Nancy made the firm synonymous with a particularly English style of decorating; ageless, comfortable and uncontrived. Much like the Haseley in fact.

The Haseley was probably inspired by an antique which the gimlet-eyed Nancy, always on the look out for a pretty thing, spotted during one of her many shopping trips. ‘She may have got idea from a more elaborate four-piece Victorian seating arrangement with cabriole legs and decorative back,’ explains Roger Jones, a director of the company.

It was typical of Nancy with her ‘lightness of touch… and dislike for self-aware grandeur,’ says Roger, that she simplified the original, jettisoning superfluous details but incorporating fun flourishes: the arched back and chubby arms curved in a welcoming embrace. The compact size makes it useful too. ‘It’s a convenient and flexible perching place which works in a number of ways, and places,’ he adds.

After Nancy moved to Britain with her English husband, the MP Ronald Tree, in 1924, doing up houses became a vehicle for self-expression and inventiveness. As the Virginian once drawled: ‘I’m agin’ decoration, I’m just a percolator of ideas.’ It helped that Nancy (who married Colonel Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster in 1948 after her divorce) had the financial freedom to do as she pleased. Mirador, her grandparent’s creeper-clad home on an estate in Albemarle County, Virginia, held a special place in her imagination and she ‘brought a distinctly American look’ to a succession of sprawling country homes: the Palladian Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire and Ditchley Park and Haseley Court, both in Oxfordshire.

Nancy Lancaster in the 1950s
 

What she called her ‘beehives’ were homes designed for a vivid social life with guests who included Churchill and fellow politician Nancy Astor (her cousin), artists, writers and sundry aristocrats. All was a far cry from the unheated, smouldering-hearthed parsimony of the traditional English country house. ‘There was warmth, hot water, and chairs conveniently placed for easy conversations next to that side table at just the right height for a glass of whisky,’ says Roger.

The Lancastrian look was all about the mix, or ‘salad’ as she put it. Nowadays we are used to our interiors being a potpourri of styles and eras. But in 1940’s Britain, juxtaposing a Chinoisierie chair with a painted commode was tantamount to heresy. ‘Interiors at that time were rigid and formal. There were very few decorators around. You could go to a company that specialised in historically-correct rooms: an Adam drawing room with appropriate furniture, for instance. Nancy, with her irreverent approach and concern for prettiness, changed that. ‘She made it all right to mix good pieces with something decorative, or fun. Which we still do now,’ says Roger.

What she created in these houses was an illusion of antiquity. As she wrote: ‘I never think that sticking slavishly to one period is successful, a touch of nostalgia adds charm.’ She was able to pull it off because she had a natural feel for scale, size and boldness. No one element stood out: rugs, furniture and objects coalesced harmoniously with, as she put it ‘mouvement.’

 

Haseley Court

Vogue photographer Cecil Beaton, admired her ‘off-hand elegance’ noting her ‘talent for sprucing up a stately but shabby home and making a grand house appear less grand.’ The acerbic diarist James Lees-Milne could not find fault: ‘Nothing jars. Nothing is too sumptuous, or new,’ he admitted.

She had professional help too, from fellow socialite Sibyl Colefax or Paris-based Maison Jansen. After she bought Lady Colefax’s business there was John Fowler. ‘Her partnership with him (“the unhappiest unmarried pair,” according to Lady Astor) constantly bickering but with an underlying affinity, mutual respect, non-stop smoking and much laughter, set the tone in the world of decoration,’ wrote the late Duchess of Devonshire.

Both romantics, they had an innate grasp for the soul of old houses, while eschewing period correctness. Nancy was quick to come up with the big ideas. Originally trained as a painter John, ‘prince of decorators,’ knew how to use colour to bring an interior to life using layers of paint – sometimes antiqued with a dash of black – so that nothing looked too new. (His ‘Yellow Room’ at the firm’s former headquarters in Brook Street, W1 is now listed). A self-taught scholar of 18th-century dress, he excelled at what Nancy called the ‘etcetera’s’, the fringes or trimmings, dressing things up to appear more impressive than they are.

Bathrooms were her forte. Instead of having to queue, sponge bag in hand, for the solitary, lino-clad washing facility down the hallway, guests discovered ensuites decorated like studies, lined with pictures and antique plates, toe-cossetting carpets and central heating. Bedrooms, pale but charming, bloomed with Chintzes clambering across curtains or cladding a Haseley, tucked at the end of a four-poster, ready to receive flung-off party wear.

A modern Haseley might be covered in the firm’s spriggy Seaweed or Squiggle fabric, perennials based on archival prints. Early sofas often featured loose covers. During the Second World War, when fabrics were rationed, damask tablecloths were dyed; nurses’ striped uniforms fabric made a thrifty alternative to ticking. Tales of Nancy knocking the newness out of materials – leaving chintzes in the sun, dipping fabrics in tea – have become part of the firm’s folklore.

Her human-centric approach still permeates its ethos. What has changed is the diversity of projects that Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler (a separate, sister company to the fabrics and wallcoverings business, Colefax & Fowler) takes on. Although best known for classical homes the decorators (there are seven) also turn their hands to modern interiors, all with the same emphasis on utility: ‘There’s no point in designing something that looks good if it isn’t practical. A room must work for the people who live in it,’ says Roger.

You can see Nancy’s influence in the work of other firms – Salvesen Graham, Henriette von Stockhausen or rising designer Sarah Brown – who combine classicism with comfort. For Tara Craig, founder of traditional upholstery company Ensemblier London, Nancy Lancaster was ‘a genius…. Her knack for bringing simple pieces of furniture to life with paint effects and her ability to improvise with fabrics have been a huge influence.’

Nancy, who suffered loss early on with the death of her baby daughter was always aware of her good fortune. ‘How lucky I’ve been to live in such beautiful places and make them as I dreamed,’ she reflected tempering any lyricism with characteristic down-to-earthness: ‘I’ve adored my houses more than my friends (or husbands).’

And Nancy, who died in 1994, aged 96, never stopped decorating. In 1954, she bought Haseley Court turning it from a dry-rot infested wreck into what former employee Imogen Taylor called a ‘wonderful creation.’ A fire in 1970 prompted her to downsize to the Coach House where she transformed an outhouse into the long summer sitting room cum library. She filled it with her favourite things: paintings, dogs and baskets, leather tomes, the festoon blinds from Ditchley faded to a rich tobacco colour, and, of course, a Haseley.

 

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