Nancy Astor and Nancy Lancaster were the ultimate hostesses during the golden age of Anglo-American hospitality. Effect speaks to designer and author Jane Churchill to find out how they did it.
Say ‘tablescaping’ to long-established designer Jane Churchill and her down-to-earth, practical approach to design would probably lead her to scoff at such a new-fangled term. Yet as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, it’s what many of us are starting to think about, and ironically, Jane Churchill’s new book Entertaining Lives is inspiration for anyone thinking about dressing a festive table.
Jane’s clients range from the Sultan of Malaysia to Estée Lauder, and her shop has stood on Pimlico Road for 48 years. Her new book, written with Emily Astor, is about the lifestyle of Nancy Lancaster and Nancy Astor. Andrew Montgomery took the wonderful photographs, and the result is a beautiful coffee table book – and a monument to the two Nancys’ knack of entertaining with style and flair.
Nancy Astor is famous for being the UK’s first woman Member of Parliament (she was elected in 1919). When she married Viscount Astor in 1906, his father gave them Cliveden as a wedding present. Nancy Lancaster was the daughter of Nancy Astor’s sister, Lizzie, who was Jane’s great grandmother. Nancy Lancaster was known as the most influential decorator of her generation, renowned for having “the finest taste in the world.” She worked with John Fowler to decorate her houses.
Both Nancys were born in Virginia and raised in a fine antebellum mansion called Mirador, which Nancy Astor’s father bought in 1892 when Nancy was 13. Nancy Lancaster was born in a cottage on the estate five years later. “Mirador had a huge influence on both Nancys,” says Jane, “and I remember how much they talked about it. Aunt Nancy (Lancaster) had taste in her DNA and took Mirador’s unpretentious, relaxed, Virginian style into every home she owned.”
Aunt Nancy’ moved to Haseley Court in Oxfordshire in 1954 after divorcing Colonel Lancaster, and renovated and decorated the house with John Fowler. Jane recalls going there during the school holidays with her sister and brother, Melissa and Henry Wyndham: “It was so comfortable, well put together, and never, ever pretentious. There were people and dogs everywhere, and always dog baskets in the hall. Everyone loved Aunt Nancy and she didn’t have a snobbish bone in her body.
Christmas at Haseley was wonderful… Decorations would be bowls of orchard apples on the hall table and endless greenery, holly or mistletoe. There were no rules. Who wants a rule?Jane Churchill
“Christmas at Haseley was wonderful. The other day I smelt a candle in Space NK and it took me straight back to the spiced whiff of cloves, cinnamon and pinecones in the hall. Decorations would be bowls of orchard apples on the hall table and endless greenery, holly or mistletoe. There were no rules. Who wants a rule? Decoration was done with love and thought, and most of it had nothing to do with money.”
The book is full of photographs that show tables laid with patterned cloths, beautiful silverware and china, and always flowers. “Flowers were wild and unarranged, spilling over bowls and vases in haphazard profusion. And it was cow parsley any day over waxy, stiff gladioli, so there was always lovely, exuberant floppage. I actually rather like the idea of tablescaping,” Jane grins, “because it means people are meeting to eat at home and talking! It is welcoming and relaxing. A lovely-looking table makes people feel good.”
The book also contains plenty of recipes, many perfect for the festive season. “Neither Nancy knew how to boil water,” laughs Jane, “but the food was always delicious, the best of ‘haute comfort’ food like chicken gumbo, clam chowder and corn beef hash. “Aunt Nancy always craved fried chicken with gravy – and I’ve put the recipe in the book – and Mirador cooking represented luxurious simplicity, the antidote to pseudo-French cooking found in Britain at the time,” says Jane. “The egg dishes were deceptively simple, but heaven. And I remember how thinly the hams were sliced.” Indeed, there is a photograph in the book of an elegant oval platter of wafer-thin slices of delectable Virginian ham with pickled peaches.
We discuss how Britain today has a reputation for serving far more vegetables and healthier, lighter meals than the Americans, but at Mirador, Nancy Astor’s father, Chillie Langhorne, was fascinated by food, and the estate was bountiful with homegrown fresh fruit and vegetables.
Jane has dedicated an entire chapter to vegetable and salad recipes, ranging from corn fritters and cornmeal soufflé grits to the famous Waldorf Salad. “Every menu was adaptable and designed to feed as many who turned up unexpectedly. It was all so much more spontaneous than the stiff formality of British entertaining at the time. The King once turned up unannounced for lunch at Cliveden, with Alice Keppel and his entire household. The butler was furious, but they managed. It was such a success that the King stayed till eight.”
Jane has inherited much of her great-aunt’s taste and still believes in a good hall and a well-lit dining room in the right colour – “a lovely gentle pea green or a warm burnt orange, even a dark red, but never navy blue – which swallows the candlelight,” she says. “A dining room should encourage people to linger, so lighting must be soft and flattering. You don’t want to feel as if you’re in a boardroom. Aunt Nancy used to have winged armchairs each end of the table upholstered in chintz to make it feel really comfortable.”
To entertain well takes huge effort to look effortless. That was their trick, and if you can emulate that, you can be certain you’re entertaining with consummate style, and that everyone will enjoy themselves and have glorious fun this Thanksgiving and Christmas.Jane Churchill
American comfort also meant that the bathrooms were a far cry from the usual spartan, chilly British affair with linoleum or cork-tiled floors. “They were like drawing rooms,” says Jane. “There would be pile carpets and flowers. They were so luxurious and warm that you relaxed into your bath rather than grabbing a quick shower and fleeing. It’s all about making people feel welcome and cherished. That was why guests flocked to wherever the Nancys lived.
“To entertain well takes huge effort to look effortless. That was their trick, and if you can emulate that, you can be certain you’re entertaining with consummate style, and that everyone will enjoy themselves and have glorious fun this Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Below is a recipe for pumpkin pie, traditionally served at Thanksgiving, found in the leather-bound copy of the Mirador Cook Book that remains in the family today:
Serves 6 to 8
750 g pumpkin – peeled, deseeded and cut into chunks
350 g sweet shortcrust pastry
140 g caster sugar
175 ml whole milk
25 g melted butter
2 eggs – beaten
½ tsp salt
½ tsp fresh nutmeg – grated
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease a loose-bottomed 20cm flan tin, 4 cm deep. Bring the pumpkin to a boil in a large pan, put a lid on and simmer for 15 minutes till tender. Drain and cool. Line the flan tin with the rolled-out pastry and put in freezer for 15 minutes. Lined with baking parchment and baking beans and bake in the oven for a further 15 minutes. Remove the paper and beans and cook for a further 10 minutes till pale golden. Allow to cool.
Increase the oven to 220C. Purée the pumpkin. In a bowl combine sugar, salt, nutmeg and half the cinnamon. Mix in the beaten eggs, melted butter and milk, then add to the pumpkin and stir to combine. Pour into the tart shell and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven to 180C and bake for a further 35-40 minutes till the filling has just set.
Leave to cool and mix the remaining cinnamon with the icing sugar and dust over the pie.
Images and recipe from Entertaining Lives, The Nancy Astor and Nancy Lancaster Cookbook, £40, Published by Clearview Books
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