Hidden in the suburbia of southeast London, Eltham Palace and Gardens have an unusual history. The site was once home to a medieval manor, complete with moat and vast parkland. In 1305 it was acquired by Edward II and handed down through the Royal family. A Great Hall was built for banqueting in the 1470s. By the time of Henry VIII it had become the largest Royal palace in the kingdom. Unfortunately, subsequent monarchs preferred Greenwich Palace, with its close proximity to the Thames, which resulted in a long decline for Eltham Palace.
Today's visitors are presented with a very different scene – an Art Deco mansion created by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s. Despite 19th century restoration attempts, and the occasional wealthy resident, the site had been used predominantly as a farm for several centuries. When the Courtaulds took over they asked designers to create a state-of-the-art house, with fashionable interiors, surrounded by sumptuous gardens. They restored the Great Hall with a medieval vision, influenced by the film industry, and added new features, such as under floor heating and a Minstrel's Gallery. However, they cannot be given full credit for the restoration of the Great Hall, much of which was undertaken by the Office of Works from 1911–14.
Adjoining the church-like Great Hall is one of the best examples of Art Deco architecture in England – the Courtauld's mansion. The couple's dreams are encapsulated in its design, which is sadly unsympathetic to the site's heritage. The resulting palace is the work of architects John Seely and Paul Edward Paget. Visitors enter via a domed hall with curved walls covered in Indian black bean veneer. Marquetry panels showing Italian and Swedish landscapes add interest to what could otherwise have been a 1930s Scandinavian-style public building. In fact, the timber panelling throughout the house creates an unmistakable feeling of being onboard a luxurious boat – perhaps influenced by the Courtauld's ownership of a yacht. Similar to boat design, the palace rooms use space wisely, with cleverly concealed en-suite bathrooms and early examples of fitted furniture. Throughout the house the Courtaulds installed ultra-modern features, such as a central music system, spotlights for paintings, electric wall-clocks and heating in the ceiling. Many of the extravagant interior designs were the work of Peter Malacrida, including Virginia's glamorous bathroom, adorned with black onyx, marble and gold.
The Courtauld's enthusiasm for the arts, travel and plant collecting are clear to see. In Stephen's library there is evidence of his passion for mountaineering and Arctic exploration, following on from his service during the Great War. A wealthy family background enabled the pursuit of these interests and opened doors for Stephen's involvement with Ealing Studios, the Royal Opera House and Courtauld Galleries. It is easy to imagine the Courtaulds hosting high society parties in the large spaces of the Dining Room, Great Hall and Entrance Hall, complete with wooden dance floor.
Guests of the Courtaulds would also have been impressed by the glorious gardens, bridges, ruins and moat. The gardens have been Grade II listed by English Heritage as a rare example of 1930s Arts and Crafts design. Notable features that were fashionable at the time include 'garden rooms', a sunken rose garden and exotic rock garden. Elsewhere, a peaceful beauty can be found along the paths winding through lawns, blossoming trees, spring bulbs and carefully placed specimen plants. In 2000 English Heritage commissioned a contemporary border in the south moat, planted with vibrant Art Deco colours. A quirkier feature of the garden is the site of the swimming pool, with only the surrounding yew hedges still in place. Inside the palace, visitors can watch footage of the Courtaulds swimming in the pool and Stephen practising his Eskimo rolls in a kayak. The film also shows their various pets, including "Mah-Jongg" – a ring-tailed lemur affectionately known as Jongy, whom they bought from Harrods. Jongy had purpose-built sleeping quarters in the house, decorated with a Madagascan jungle mural.
By the end of the Second World War the Courtaulds moved to Scotland, giving rise to a new chapter in the palace's history. Army educational units occupied the site until 1992, helping military personnel return to civilian life, amongst many purposes. The palace now holds children's events, such as "Soldiers School", as a nod to its military past.
The Art Deco features of this property have been well presented by English Heritage. If more of the Courtauld's possessions could be obtained to adorn the rooms it would be completely entrancing. Nevertheless, Eltham Palace is a must-see for Art Deco fans, for which there is a biannual antique fair in the grounds. Garden enthusiasts will also be delighted by the rare opportunity to see 1930s garden design revived so beautifully.