23 August 2020

Eltham Palace

Situated at the end of a leafy lane in south London, Eltham Palace is a truly magnificent building. A showpiece of cutting edge 1930's art deco design, this unique mansion was once home to eccentric millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld.
Little is known of any settlement on the site until the Domesday survey of 1086, when the manor of Eltham is recorded as belonging to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror.
The estate changed hands several times until 1295 when Antony Bek, an influential statesman, Bishop of Durham and friend of Edward I acquired the manor. He built a grand house surrounded by a moat and high stone walls. On his death Bek bequeathed the manor to the Crown, and the royal family gradually transformed it into a magnificent palace. Accessible from London, rural enough for fresh air and hunting, and on the travelling route to Europe, Eltham became a favourite royal residence. Henry VIII spent much of his boyhood there. During his reign the palace could accommodate the entire court of 800 or more. Kings, emperors and statesmen were entertained there. 
By the 1530s Henry rarely visited, preferring Hampton Court and Greenwich, both easily accessible by river. After Henry's reign royalty rarely visited, and by the 18th century the magnificent palace had become a picturesque ruin, only just avoiding complete destruction.
During the 1640's Civil War Parliamentary troops who were quartered there badly damaged the palace and deer park, cutting down many trees for firewood.
"I went to see his Majesty's house at Eltham, both palace and chapel in miserable ruins, the noble woods and park destroyed.." John Evelyn, 1656.
In 1663 the site was leased to Sir John Shaw. He built a new house, Eltham Lodge, in the Great Park. The land around the palace became a farm, with the Great Hall used as a barn. In 1859 the farmhouse adjoining the Great Hall was rebuilt as a fine residence, Eltham Court, with the hall becoming an indoor tennis court.

In the 1890's the government agency the Office of Works made minor repairs to the hall on behalf of the Crown.
In 1933 the palace site was leased by the Courtaulds, a cosmopolitan couple with a shed load of money and an interest in art and design. They built an opulent, modern house,  designed with sophistication and status in mind. The Courtaulds wanted a home where they could entertain their friends from the worlds of film and the arts. 
"One of the provisos when the house has been built, there had to be hot baths for twelve people before dinner .... fearfully luxurious"Mollie Butler, regular visitor.
The Courtaulds moved in in 1936 and lived there for eight years with their nephews and exotic pets including Mah-Jongg the lemur. They planted beautiful gardens, a fashionable rock garden, a formal rose garden, tennis courts and a swimming pool.
In 1940 the Great Hall was damaged by German incendiary bombs.
In 1944 the Courtaulds left Eltham, moving to Scotland and then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
In 1945 Eltham became home to the Royal Army Educational Corps. The Ministry of Works looked after the Great Hall and the archeological remains.
1952-7 Archeological excavations revealed remains of the medieval palace.
1975 The Royal Parks Training School started training gardeners and maintaining the grounds.
1992 The Royal Army Educational Corps left and English Heritage took over the care of the site and opened the house to the public. 

After parking, and a short walk, entrance to the house is over London's oldest working bridge

I'm sure the guide said this lovely little window was reclaimed from somewhere else but I can't remember or find anything online.

                              Entrance to the house                                         The Great Hall
The weather was intermittently threatening rain, gloomy and sunny when we visited last October 

The stunning domed entrance hall, where prestigious guests would have gathered. Encircled with intricate wood panelling and elegant period furniture, it conveys a sense of luxury.

Each side of the main entrance is surrounded by Italian and Scandinavian landscapes.
A Roman soldier and a Viking warrior guard the doors.

The tour of the house starts upstairs with numerous rooms leading off wide spacious landings.

The first room we see is a replica of the 'house' that Mah-Jongg the lemur lived in.
It benefitted from central heating, and in one of the corners at the back is a kind of slide
down to the ground floor where he could wander around!

Virginia's bedroom suite
The Courtauld’s bedroom suites would have been the height of modernity at the time, 
with elegant lines and luxurious comforts

including en-suite bathrooms & walk in wardrobes

Virginia's en-suite where a statue of the goddess Psyche presides over the bathroom which has walls lined with onyx and embellished with black slate disks. The stunning gold plated mosaic recess, matching bath taps and lion’s ‘spout’ are the epitome of luxury.

The chic styling of Virginia’s room, continued through to Stephen’s
To the right of the picture is a door that leads through to Virginia's room.

Back down to the ground floor and where the Courtaulds were able to display their true style.

Every house needs a heart and the centre of Eltham’s daily life was the sycamore-panelled boudoir, or study, where Virginia spent much of her time. You can imagine Mrs Courtauld drinking tea or enjoying a gin and tonic on the massive sofa, an early example of built-in furniture.

The mahogany library has a recess where maps can be pulled up and down on a roller, and to the left of this photo is a leather-panelled map room with a synchronous electric clock built into the map, and clocks on the walls showing the time in various cities around the globe. This is where they planned their many foreign trips.

The Italian designed dining room has some beautiful contrasting elements, aluminum-leaf ceiling, and the striking black and silver doors are real statement pieces with their black lacquer and embossed ivory coloured decorations of birds and animals, each one painstakingly drawn from real animals at London Zoo. Every design detail has a feeling of stylish glamour.

The Drawing Room has more of a traditional feel to it, with elements of the room feeling quite historical. It's designed in a traditional Italian style with decorative beams and cream walls to display Stephen's collection of Renaissance paintings and ceramics.

This was a house for living in, and as well as the luxury the Courtaulds also considered the practical aspects. A flower room was designed for sorting and arranging cut flowers. Fresh flowers were a very important part of the decor. The house boasted over 90 glass, porcelain and pottery vases. Proof that you can never have too many vases, especially if you’re rich and play host to society parties!

They commissioned Siemens to install a private internal telephone exchange, and for guests wanting to make outside phone calls, there was also a 1930s coin-operated telephone booth. 
I remember using telephones like this one!

The kitchen was very well equipped with all mod cons

The centralised vacuum cleaner in the basement.
The housemaid attached a hose to a hidden socket in each room.
It wasn't fool proof though, it regularly broke down!
The basement has a wartime bunker with beds and first aid equipment, 
a photographic dark room

and a billiard room

No expense was spared to give themselves and guests every comfort and pleasure they desired. As well as new technology there were electric fires in most rooms, and synchronous clocks to ensure their guests all arrived for meals on time! A loudspeaker system broadcasted records to rooms on the ground floor and gas was used to power underfloor and radiant ceiling heating throughout the house.

The Great Hall is accessible from the ground and upstairs
Many elaborate banquets would have been held below this magnificent oak roof.

It was dismantled and reassembled in 1911–14, and the hall itself was fully restored in the 1930’s

The Courtaulds had the minstrels’ gallery added

The house is surrounded by 19 acres of beautiful gardens 

The rain that was threatening all day eventually came later in the afternoon

and our day ended slightly earlier than planned. On the way back to the car park the rain turned torrential. We had had a lovely day though. With a lovely restaurant and shop it's well worth a visit.

∼ Be safe and well 
Polly x


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  2. Now that’s some land history that you just don’t get in the States! Truly fascinating. I’d be most interested in the lovely gardens. We actually have a centralized vacuum system in our current home, but I never use it. It’s incredibly loud, as if you’re on an airport runway.

    1. We do have a lot of history over here. All the kings acquired land and gave some of it to their friends.

  3. Thanks, Polly, for a wonderful and very thorough tour. Since we will not be doing a lot of traveling during what's left of this year, armchair travel is very welcome. It seems that every need would have been satisfied in this home. As much as I enjoyed the rooms tour, the grounds were just as enticing.

  4. This place immediately goes on my list, Polly, thanks for the tour. I do miss travelling, wonder when we can go back to normal.

    1. English Heritage have lots of lovely places, many of which are open now with limited entry but I haven't visited any yet.

  5. Thank you for taking me along to see this incredible place. During Covid we have to be content with arm chair traveling. This was wonderful!

  6. What a really fabulous place. I need to look this one up and see if when I (finally) get to England again (hopefully next year) that it might be a spot I can get to. It's really striking, both the gardens and interior. So often in these homes you see beautiful interiors but they are quite "heavy" and very traditional. The Deco look here is really quite different and works so well. Thanks for this, Polly.

    1. It is worth trying to get to. There are so many lovely places to visit though, it would be difficult trying to fit them all in :-)

  7. My goodness what an amazing tour you took us on, so much detail to take in I had to go back and read it all again. A great post.

  8. It's very beautiful but doesn't look very snug or comfy! Stunning though.

    1. I don't think socialites did snug and comfy! I could get comfy on the huge sofa in the study though.

  9. Ultra-luxurious indeed. Clearly designed to impress all the right people! But as Liz says, it doesn't look very snug or cosy. Though with underfloor and ceiling heating, it was probably a lot more comfortable than the average draughty country mansion.

    I also remember the old button A and button B phones. If you thumped them hard, they sometimes disgorged a few coins!

    1. I would like luxury but I would prefer something smaller and cosier. It was definitely for impressing. I used to check out the little hole for any money, but I don't think I thumped them!


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