Eltham Palace - Britain's Greatest Art Deco Building?
Eltham Palace was commissioned by eccentric millionaire Stephen Courtauld and his wife Virginia during the 1930s. According to English Heritage, it is a striking Art Deco mansion. If so, it is one of only a handful of genuine Art Deco buildings in Europe. Considering their enormous wealth, it should also be the best. The mansion is connected to the Great Hall of the medieval palace from which it takes its name. This palace was the childhood home of Henry Tudor who would become Henry VIII. Momentous Britain loves Art Deco and the Tudors. We had never been before. It is an omission we rectified on a glorius Sunday afternoon in February.
To get our bearings, we walked around the outside of the building. It is shaped like calliper dividers, set at an angle of 60°. The entrance is inside the dividers at the pivot. The entrance lobby (above) is therefore triangular. It was designed by Swedish architect Rolf Engströmer. The Courtaulds used it as a cocktail lounge. By consensus, it is the most impressive room in the building. We think so too.
There is a line of windows above the cocktail lounge door, but most of its daylight comes through a domed Ottoman style concrete ceiling inset with concentric circles of pavement lights. The furniture, fixtures and fittings are sleek functional Moderne style. Nothing ugly or cluttered is on show. The uplighting is concealed behind a hoop railing. The heating is concealed under the floor. Apparently there is a sprung dance floor concealed under the rug.
The most impressive feature in the cocktail lounge, and some of the other rooms, is the Japanese marquetry. In the case of the cocktail lounge the design is by Jerk Werkmäster. The central feature is a pair of sentries guarding the door; Roman centurion on the left, Viking warrior on the right, each set in a panorama (above) from their homeland. It reminded us of the marquetry we saw at the V&A Ocean Cruise Liners exhibition. The Courtaulds were enthusiastic travellers. We guess they got the idea while sailing on the Normandie, the Berengaria or the Queen Mary. Perhaps the same applied to the rug, which is a replica of one that used to be there by Marion Dorn, who designed the carpets on the Queen Mary.
One leg of the calliper dividers heads west from the cocktail lounge, which means it has south facing windows. This is where Stephen and Virginia spent most of their time. Downstairs has a drawing room, boudoir and library, with a link through to the ancient Great Hall. Upstairs are the master bedrooms, for Stephen, Virginia and a guest, each with an en-suite bathroom. The other leg heads north-northwest from the cocktail lounge. With very little natural light, needless to say, this is where the servants spent most of their time. Downstairs is the dining room, kitchen and larders. Upstairs is the Venetian suite, pear room, more guest bedrooms and the servant's bedrooms. The basement has a bomb shelter, photographic dark room and billiards room.
There is little point in us describing all the rooms. Others have done a far better job than we could ever do. In general, the interiors were originally designed by Peter Malacrida, an Italian aristocrat and friend of the family. Having fallen into disrepair, they have been reproduced from Country Life photos taken in the 1930s. They all have concealed uplighting and horse hair sound insulation. The cocktail lounge, great hall and bathrooms had underfloor heating. Most of the rooms are wood panelled. One exception is the drawing room which the audio-tour claims to reflect Virginia Courtauld's Italian and Hungarian heritage. It looks more Spanish to us. The bathrooms are tiled rather than panelled. Virginia's bathroom is a Roman bathhouse style, complete with a gold-plated taps, gold mosaics and a Greek/Roman statue. Stephen's bathroom is more functional, with chrome plated taps and turquoise Vitriole tiles. The Venetian suite has gold leaf covered panels, presumably to reflect Venetian Carnival masks.
We loved the dining room fireplace (above) with its Greek key design, corrugated stainless steel guards and original electric fire. It is probably the most Art Deco feature of the entire building. The Greek key pattern is mirrored on the doors (below).
As we left the dining room, we noticed three plaster bas reliefs on the wall that depict scenes from Alice in Wonderland, one of which is the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. A self-deprecating joke by Stephen? An in-joke between Stephen and Virginia? A comment on Stephen's character by the designers? Who knows?
There are a few technical features that piqued our (male) interest. Apparently the clocks - there is one in almost every room - were electrically synchronised. It has to be said that most of them are either wrong or not working, so the system must be faulty. We wanted to see how it worked but the volunteers did not seem to know where the master clock was located. The house had a piped music system. We looked around but could not see the speakers. Moving coil speakers were only invented in 1924. The Jazz Singer opened in London in 1928. The Courtaulds started work on Eltham Palace in 1933. If it had a moving coil speaker system, it must have been one of the first in the country and probably Britain's first in a private house. The house had a bespoke Siemens telephone system, presumably with a Strowger PBX, and a Kelvinator fridge. We couldn't find either of these technology gems.
The basement has a 1930s BVC centralised vacuum cleaning system. There are outlets in every room, operated simply by attaching a flexible hose. It interested us for two reasons. One is that BVC was the company formed by Hubert Cecil Booth, who invented the vacuum cleaner. He demonstrated the system in person to his best customers. Those customers included King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. His pitch must have been good. They bought this same BVC system for Buckingham Palace. Many of Europe's other royal palaces were also customers. Presumably he presented his pitch to the Cortaulds, but there is no record. Secondly, BVC had a residential consumer product named Goblin (unrelated to the current Goblin brand), one of which belonged to our grandparents. We must try to find it.
The interior has some disappointments. There are no examples of Courtauld textiles, which we found rather odd. Was Stephen ashamed of his heritage perhaps? Walls aside, very little of the interior is original. The Courtaulds took the contents with them when they left. Then the building was occupied by the Army Education Corps from WWII until the 1990s. We guess they removed and/or damaged most of the fixtures and fittings.
We know this is a man thing, but we hated the plumbing. Considering their wealth and their dislike of the unsightly, we expected some exquisit taps, syphons, sanitary ware and concealed pipework. What we got was ugly, urbane and barely functional. The nicest taps in the building (above), in Virginia's bathroom, look more Arts & Crafts than Art Deco.
More importantly, a few Greek key patterns aside, the interior is not our idea of Art Deco. There are no sunbursts, no bird wings, no geometric patterns, Aztec patterns, Mayan patterns, Egyptian colours, Lalique (apart from a fake looking vase in the cocktail lounge), Tiffany, Lorenzl, Clarice Cliff or anything else we associate with Art Deco. The Italian renaissance paintings and Italian Maiolica look especially out of place. Some say that the interior design is Art Moderne, but that only applies to a few bits of furniture. We would describe the interior design as 1930s cruise liner style - there is even a porthole on the stairs. It is not horrid, it is of the Art Deco era and it is spectacular in places. It is just not what we were led to expect or what we hoped for.
Eltham Palace was constructed in the 13th Century and given to Edward II in 1305. It was Edward IV's favourite palace. He built the Great Hall in the 1470s. His great-great-grandson Henry Tudor, the future Henry VIII, was raised in the palace. In those days the palace covered the entire space inside the moat. By the 1930s only the Great Hall was left, and it was nearly falling down. The Courtaulds restored the Great Hall as a ballroom. The ceiling had already been dismantled and restored in the 1910s. The Courtaulds replaced the windows and floor, installing a minstrel's gallery for a band, wood panels to improve the insulation. and underfloor heating. Stephen acquired an extensive collection of medieval furniture, most of which is on display.
Apart from its age, the Great Hall is pretty unremarkable. The feature that most interested us was the false hammer beam roof (above). In this case, it is 'false' because the hammer posts are jointed to the hammer beams rather resting on them. We have never seen one like it, which makes us wonder why they went to the effort. We could think of no obvious answer.
The grounds have been excavated and covered over. Archaeologists therefore have a good idea what the original palace looked like, but there is nothing to see. The only indication was in the English Heritage guidebook. We were most interested in the fresh water delivery system, but we could not find the underground tunnels.
If the inside is an Art Deco disappointment, the outside is an Art Deco non-starter. It is brick and stone construction, with huge crittall windows, a pitched tile roof, ornate bas relief mouldings, fake pilasters. and visible box-shaped downpipes. According to the audio-tour, the Courtaulds deliberately tried to integrate the mansion construction design materials with the Great Hall. If so, they succeeded. It is airy and light, but drab. No one would guess what was inside from looking at the outside. This is one reason the cocktail lounge entrance looks so spectacular.
The building was designed by architects John Seely and Paul Paget. We can't help but wonder if they were having a laugh at our expense ... or perhaps at the Courtauld's expense (both figuratively and financially). There is a bas relief Roman/Greek goddess above the main entrance. We presume it to be Vesta. Vesta operated from the Temple of Vestal Virgins, which appeared on the back of a Roman coin. That image is reproduced in marquetry on Virginia's bedroom door. It also looks like the main entrance to Eltham Palace and the entrance to the squash court. One outside wall has a bas relief of what looks like Apollo with a snake - presumably a python - entwined on his arm. Virginia had a snake tattooed on her leg. Vesta was goddess of home and hospitality. Virginia was often described as a wonderful housekeeper and hostess. Vesta was a professional virgin. Virginia never had children and slept in a separate bedroom from Stephen. We suspect that the architects were giving secret insights into their relationship, although we cannot say whether they were in on it.
The gardens are extensive. As well as lawns, there is a rose garden, a rock garden, a herb garden, a logia and fields. Again, we can add no value over the many experts that have written about the gardens, so we will keep quiet. Our favourite outside features are the moat bridges. The south bridge, draped in wisteria, looks as if it has been specifically designed for wedding photographs, but we gather it is older than it looks.
Everywhere in southeast London is a pain to visit unless you are leaving from somewhere in Kent. Eltham Palace is among the least bad. It is no more than a kilometre from the A2, the A20, Eltham station and Mottingham station. For those that drive, we recommend following the brown signs when getting close, because sat-navs and phone maps give directions to the moat bridge, where there is no free parking and no ticket desk.
Standard entry was £16 for non-English Heritage members, which is pretty typical. There is no complimentary Wi-Fi, but a good mobile signal. There is no human tour, which is a shame, but the volunteers are knowledgeable and there is an audio-tour. The format takes some getting used to. It is presented as a 1930s dinner party hosted by the Courtaulds to which the listener has been invited as a guest. It is very odd. Lord knows what foreigners make of it. We can't help but think they would be better off with a normal audio-tour.
The children's play area is large, well-equipped and safe looking. The tea room is large and well staffed. They were struggling with the crowd on the day we went, but it was a fabulous day and the last in the year when English Heritage members do not get priority. We thought the food was nicely cooked by comparison with similar places elsewhere. We had apple crumble and coffee. The espresso was a tad turgid - probably not tamped enough - but the crumble tasted good and the custard was as good as Birds gets. It was presented in modern looking clean crockery. The room was comfortable and spacious. The toilets were clean and fresh.
We enjoyed our day at Eltham Palace. It is unique. Nowhere else in Britain is even comparible. We thoroughly recommend it, with the proviso not to expect anything Tudor or anything that normal people would think of as Art Deco.