London SE9 4QE
Monday September 8th 2014
Easily accessible by train and bus, Eltham Palace is an intriguing mixture of medieval and Tudor remains, carefully restored, and the height of Art Deco interiors somehow and successfully melded into one building for a home to the Courtaulds , this time Stephen and Virgina (known as Ginnie), for about 10 years. After they left for Scotland and then for the warmer climate of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the late Forties the buildings were taken over by the Army Education Corps and later restored by English Heritage, who opened the property in 1999.
If you are wondering whether these Courtaulds were related to those who founded the Courtauld Institute and gallery (see entry for June 5th) Stephen was indeed the younger brother of Sam.
This was in fact my 6th visit to the site; we had some overseas visitors in tow with a few hours to spare before a Gatwick flight and as we had already visited with Jo it seemed right to write up our trip which took place on a perfect September day. Since taking over English Heritage have made several improvements – there are now two separate picnic spots – one close to the house and another adjacent to the car park, where there is also a sheltered and very pleasant children’s playground: picnicking may be a better option than the café where the strength is tea-time catering rather than anything more substantial.
The approach is perfect – across the moat and then you are ushered in via the side entrance to pay and collect your audio guide – the guide is very detailed and with extras could take nearly two hours; it gives a really good picture of the kind of social life led by the rich during the Thirties and the expenses not spared in providing interiors in which to lead this life. It goes without saying that this was not their only home. I do recommend the audio guides if you want an enhanced experience but equally English Heritage provide information boards in each room explaining their function and history and when the furniture and furnishings are largely reproductions but based very closely on the contemporary documents and specifications. So complete is the effect that it is very popular as a film and TV location.
Armed with your guide of whatever kind your first gasp is reserved for the entrance hall which doubles also as a sitting room with intricate inlaid wood walls and matching floor suites and carpets in delicate shades of beige (Swedish influence) – only those opting to get married can tread on the Marion Dorn rug.
Interestingly the Courtaulds’ house guests, while allowed endless hot water and en suite bathrooms (quite unusual in the drafty English country house), were expected to use the coin phone in the ‘service’ wing for outside calls – the house phones only worked between rooms. It is here that you also encounter the house’s other famous resident, the Courtaulds’ pet lemur ‘Mah-Jhong’ who had his own ladder to access his upstairs suite/cage visible from the landing. The entrance hall is beautifully light thanks to the dramatic central dome. Don’t miss the excellent Art Deco wash basins still in use in the public toilets.
Another more conventional sitting room opens off the dramatic entrance hall and holds some of the more treasured majolica pieces in the glass cupboards. Needless to say no expense was spared in the silk furnishings and antique Turkish rugs.
Along the corridor to the Great Hall are what you might call ‘his and her’ offices, more or less equally sized and with lovingly built to fit furniture, be it recessed lighting, side tables, maps on rollers or bookshelves. Ginnie’s room is a little softer given that it has a sofa, but you could imagine yourself working or more likely giving work to a secretary in either room. The prize exhibit in Stephen’s room is a model of Charles Sergeant Jagger’s ‘The Sentry’, currently on show in the Wellington Arch (see blog entry August 11), as a reminder that he too served in the Artists’ Rifles and was profoundly affected by his experiences.
The suggested and preferred route through the house then takes you into the Great Hall which has the third largest hammer beam roof after Westminster Hall and Hampton Court (see August 4th) but being less crowded and with a simple largely empty interior it is easier at Eltham to appreciate the intricacies of the timber structure. This kind of double structure is called ‘false’ but actually there is no fakery to it and this one dates from Edward IV and the late 15th century. I would have liked to find a little animation of how they constructed these roofs , but architecture websites seem too sober for that.
Still stand and enjoy. When they restored it (a farmer had been using it as a barn) the Courtaulds added a few embellishments in the ‘Tudor’ spirit, namely a minstrels’ gallery and a screen at the raised end of the hall. The windows are large giving maximum light and slightly incongruously you can walk out into the Thirties Orangery at the dais end.
Back to the corridor and up the wonderful curved staircase with huge portholes which are not glassed in brings you quite abruptly back to the Thirties glamour of the cruise liners when cruising was the prerogative of the rich. Courtesy of the Minstrels’ gallery you can get an even closer look at the timber work and hear about how close the bombs fell during World War II – the bombing of SE London is something we covered more than once on our Woolwich type bus routes…
There were of course several guest bedrooms as the Courtaulds were inveterate entertainers; one of them is now ‘set-up’ as an officer’s bedroom to recall the post-war Army days. Stephen and Ginnie’s ‘His and Her’ bedrooms again reflect their different tastes – hers has a wildly extravagant gold en suite to a circular bedroom with built in wardrobes and concealed lighting, his is more modest in fittings if not in size but also with a beautiful bathroom. Not to be missed are Mah-Jongg’s sleeping /living quarters at which point the audio guide will tell several tales of what a nasty little pet he was. The Venetian Guest room completes the substantive tour of the upstairs, where there are also some ‘home movies’ of the time on a loop. Needless to say there were rooms for secretary and servants too, though you do not visit the latter.
The tour finishes on another dramatic note, that of the dining room with its custom built pink leather dining chairs, which combined with the beautiful woods used, give the room a warm and flattering glow. The arresting feature is not the fireplace, as is the usual case with stately homes, as by now we have concealed central heating and even an electric fire as part of the ‘modern look’ but the cupboard doors with their inlaid lacquered exotic animal reliefs. On that exemplary Art Deco note it is time to leave the house for the garden, which would justify a visit in its own right.
As we have by now been round at most times of year it is fair to say the garden is one for all seasons Rather than try to describe the tour round just think there is a moat path to follow right round the hall and house – this can be roped off in part if wet weather has caused flooding – and these sunken areas, when not under water are sheltered and tended. The photos show the borders, and the sunken rose garden.
Just one word of warning – check before you visit especially at weekends as the house is often closed for weddings and you will be met by large bouncers barring your way…