Eltham Palace was once host to Kings, Queens and international statesmen. At the time it was the only palace large enough to feed the Tudor court and is one of only six medieval palaces to substantially survive. In 1305, it was acquired by Edward II and under Edward IV in the 1470s, the Great Hall, which still stands today, was added. The last monarch to spend any significant amount of time or money on Eltham Palace was Henry VIII, and in the 16th century the Palace was eclipsed by Greenwich Palace and rapidly fell into declined. It subsequently fell into different hands and was used for many activities such as farming and a gentleman’s residents, each one adding features to the palace including Gardens, a Villa and glasshouses.
The 1930′s: Stephen and Virginia Courtauld
In the 1930′s Stephen and Virginia Courtauld were searching for a property with ease of access to central London. Eltham met their requirements and they commissioned the architects Seely and Paget to build an opulent house adjoining the Great Hall. The “Wrenaissance” style, after the architect Christopher Wren, was chosen for the exterior and so Seely and Paget, under the impression that that it was in the nature of the “restoration” period, used Wren’s design of Hampton Court Palace as a template. Their design, however, was more distinctively of the 1930s than the 1690s.
The Family hired leading designers and craftsmen to create a range of lavish interiors and outstanding gardens, providing the setting for their extensive collection of art and furniture, and ample space for entertaining.
The Entrance Hall
The Entrance Hall is especially breath taking in its design and was created by Swedish designer Rolf Engstromer. It’s possible that Stephen and Virginia may have witnessed his work on a trip to Stockholm in 1928. Notably, Eltham Palace became the first Swedish interior in England. The Hall is triangular in plan with curved sides that give it a circular feel a theme that is supported by a concrete glass domed roof, 7 meters in diameter, through which light shines through the whole room creating a grand sense of space. The circular shape of the dome, which was a feature especially requested by Stephen Courtauld, is mirrored by the reproduction Marian Dorn Donegal carpet lying beneath it (the original is in the V&A) giving the room a wonderful sense of harmony.
The Stockholm based artist Jerk Werkmaster created the wooden marquetry panels either side of the main entrance. On one side is depicted an Italian Scenery with a Roman soldier whilst on the other is Swedish scenery with a Viking soldier, both panels represent some of the Courtaulds favourite buildings in both countries, including Sweden’s dome of Gustav Vasa church, Ostberg’s town hall and the Royal Palace and Italy’s Palazzo Vecchio and the church of Santa Maria della Salute.
The rest of the rooms were designed by Italian aristocrat and London based designer, Marchese Peter Malacrida with beautiful Art Deco furniture with Greek, Egyptian, Japanese and Persian flourishes. One of the most interesting aspects of his designs were how most of the furniture was built in so that rooms had a spacious and uncluttered feel to them. The latest technology allowed for this so that the Courtaulds had fitted a central music system, with speakers in every reception room; concealed ceiling and underfloor heating; concealed ceiling lights; synchronised electric wall-clocks; and a central vacuum cleaner with sockets in all rooms.
The Boudoir or sitting room became the central focus of the house during the war. The sofa with its shelved frame is an early example of built in furniture and also incorporated a place to put down one’s tea.
The Library served as Stephen’s study and accommodated Stephen’s collection of watercolours and other topographical works by 18th and 19th Century artists (inc.J R Cozens, Paul Sandy, Thomas Girtin and John Sell Cotman). His art collection also included 13 Turners, the originals of which are now in Courtauld institute (those on display are copied). Stephen had these paintings protected by vertically sliding shutters, a design most likely inspired by a similar construction in Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The shutters themselves were covered in woodcuts, etchings and engravings of works by artists such as Albrecht Durer and William Turner.
The Dining Room
The dining room was, in my opinion, one of the finer rooms of the Palace. Designed by Malacrida, it exemplifies the sophistication of the “Moderne” style as typified by geometrical and stylised shapes as opposed to the more fluid curvatures of the earlier Art Nouveau genre. It is possible that he was influenced by a visit in Paris to the “Exposition des Arts Decoratifs” at the Galaries Lafayette in 1925. It was from this seminal exhibition that the term “Art Deco” was later coined. The designs rely on contrasting tones and textures or effect. Paper thin bird’s-eye maple flexwood line the walls, ceilings and even the picture frames which again create a sense of harmony throughout the room.
Contrast is created through the recessed central portion of the ceiling. This is covered in aluminium leaf on a blue background, with built in concealed lighting to make the metal shimmer at night. All around this central portion are rose-shaped adornments covered in aluminium.
The Greek Key influence in Art Deco is very apparent in this room, as is the Courtauld family’s love of animals as each door displays different animals from around the world.
Virginia Courtauld’s Suite
Designed by Peter Malacrida, Virginia’s Suite was is as flamboyant as the lady herself was reputed to be. All the features in the room, the double bed, cabinets, chest of drawers etc… were fitted into the curved walls.
The ensuite bathroom is even more lavish than the bedroom with gold plated taps and a lion’s-mask spout and a golden mosaic niche containing a statue of the goddess Psyche.
Stephen Courtauld’s Suite
The Courtauld’s left Eltham in 1933 and the site was then occupied by Army educational units until 1992. English Heritage assumed management of the entire site in 1995, and in 1999 completed a major programme of repairs and restoration of the 1930′s house and gardens.