Eltham Palace is my ideal dream house. I’ve always wanted to live in an Art Deco mansion with stylish and glamorous 1930s interiors.
Walking through the house and gardens, it’s easy to conjure up images of the Courtauld family and their posh friends drinking martinis, playing tennis and partying.
The 1930s was a golden age of flamboyance and luxury, if you were rich – and the Courtaulds were wealthy beyond most people’s wildest dreams. They’d made their money from rayon and textiles.
They were so filthy rich that they spent most of their leisure time cruising in their yacht and touring abroad.
Egypt, South Africa, Ceylon and the South China Sea were some of the exotic stop-offs on their tours. What a pity that they didn’t write a travel blog on their vacations!
Their house at Eltham is so beautiful that it’s criminal that they spent so much time away from it.
Fit for a king
Eltham was originally a moated manor house built by the Bishop of Durham, Antony Bek. In 1305 the Bishop presented the manor to the future king, Edward 11, who developed it as a royal palace.
By the early 14th Century, Eltham had become one of the most important royal palaces in England.
The medievel Great Hall was built in 1470 by King Edward IV with a spectacular wood beamed roof.
Back in 1482 the hall was the venue for 2,000 court guests eating Christmas dinner. What a feast it must have been!
Under King Edward III the palace became popular for jousting and tournaments which took place in the tilt yard.
Close your eyes today and you can almost hear the thundering hooves of the horses and cries of the crowd during the jousts.
Later, King Richard II created the garden so that he and his queen could enjoy dinner outside in the summer.
He also had a dancing chamber and bath house built. Even in medieval times Eltham was renowned for having all ‘mod cons’.
Eltham is most famous for being one of King Henry VIII’s favourite royal palaces and parks. It was one of only six palaces big enough to accommodate and feed the king’s enormous court of 800 people.
During the 1530s, it was eclipsed by Hampton Court which was easier to reach from London. The Tudor monarchs became less frequent visitors and Eltham started to fall into disrepair.
Eventually Eltham reverted to being used as a farmstead and its picturesque ruins became popular with Romantic painters like J.M.W. Turner.
Eltham Palace’s palatial style hits home when you arrive at the gates and walk across the stone bridge into the courtyard.
The imposing moat creates a strong sense of regal power and strength.
The gardens provide a glimpse of what life must have been like in the 15th-16th centuries with remains of the inner gatehouse, grotesque heads and the stone towers of the early moated manor house.
The lawn was partly excavated in the 1950s and 1970s to reveal a great hall floor and a vaulted cellar.
This is great place for both kids and history detectives keen on exploring the palace’s nooks and crannies.
The ruins and gardens provide a compelling journey back through time but the big star attraction is the later 1930s Art Deco house.
Art Deco style
In the 1930s the Courtauld family acquired Eltham and set about transforming it from a wreck into an Art Deco masterpiece.
The new house was designed for the Courtaulds by the architects Seely and Paget and some of the top contemporary designers of the day provided the creative inspiration behind its exquisite interiors.
This is a theatrical experience as much as a trip around a posh home, starting at the house’s entrance with its grand curved entrance colonnade, copper-clad pavilions and imposing courtyard.
Everything is in the best possible taste. Even the arches of the colonnade were inspired by Christopher Wren’s designs for Hampton Court and Trinity College Library.
This is a 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.
Their famous visitors would include Queen Mary, Michael Balcon (Head of Ealing Studios), the conductor Malcolm Sargent and film stars.
Not everybody liked the house’s style. One architect at the time compared its design to a “cigarette factory” whilst another proclaimed “romance died at Eltham” with the building of the mansion.
In spite of the critics, Eltham is one of the best examples of an Art Deco house anywhere in Europe. If you love Art Deco as much as I do, it’s like being a child in a sweet shop.
In the 1930s visitors must have been surprised by Eltham’s interior which was striking and radically different from other houses of the time.
Walking into the entrance hall there’s a big ‘wow’ factor. Designed by Swedish architect Rolf Engstromer, this is where Art Deco style goes into overdrive.
The design is awesome with large illustrated wood marquetry panels by the Swedish artist, Jerk Werkmaster.
The bold illustrations represent the far reaches of northern and southern European civilisation. A Roman soldier and a Viking warrior guard the doors against a background of Italian and Scandinavian landscapes.
The elegant wood furniture and contemporary designs make it feel like a stage set from a Noel Coward play where everyone is drinking cocktails.
The difference is that this theatrical space is for real. Socialising in this beautiful room must have been a fabulous experience.
Elegance and luxury
As you move through the house, it’s obvious that this is no ordinary house, even by the standards of its millionaire owners.
Eltham’s dining room is a fine example of the Moderne Art Deco style with geometrical and stylized shapes and furnishings.
But there are also elements of the classical style which reminded me of the layout and colour schemes in ancient Roman villas.
The striking doors are real statement pieces with their black lacquer and embossed ivory coloured decorations of birds and animals, each drawn painstakingly from real creatures at London Zoo.
Every design detail has a feeling of stylish glamour from the furniture to the wall decorations and the ceiling’s unusual light box.
The clever concealed lighting provides an interesting effect which makes the metallic finishes shimmer and shine.
The room also boasts an early example of a home entertainment system. A loudspeaker on the wall was wired to the record cabinet in the corridor of the great hall.
Every house needs a heart and the centre of Eltham’s daily life was the sycamore-panelled boudoir or study where Virginia Courtauld 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 stylish contemporary boudoir was presided over by Ginie Courtauld’s parrot, Congo, one of the family’s menagerie of animals.
It’s in complete contrast to the house’s main drawing-room which is more tradionally decorated with eclectic styles ranging from medieval to folk art.
Staying overnight at Eltham must have been a glamorous experience with its opulent guest bedrooms.
But the most impressive bedrooms were reserved for the family. Virginia Courtauld’s bedroom is stunning with its circular shape, classical designs and gorgeous decorations.
Designed by Malacrida, this is one of the most opulent parts of the house – a room fit for a goddess. You would never had got me out of here once installed for the night!
Just off the main bedroom, there is a gorgeous en-suite bathroom which oozes elegance and luxury.
A classical statue of the goddess Psyche presides over the bathroom which has walls lined with onyx and embellished with black slate disks.
The stunning gold mosaic niche, matching bath taps and lion’s ‘spout’ are the epitome of luxury.
Stephen Courtauld’s bedroom suite is a more restrained affair but is still highly original in its design.
The walls are lined with aspen and the side wall features an unusual hand-printed wallpaper depicting Kew Gardens. I’m not sure that I could have lived with its bold designs, though.
There’s a walk-in wardrobe and a fireplace with conical shelves to complete the Art Deco look.
Off to one side of the bedroom, there’s a striking peacock-blue and turquoise tiled en suite bathroom which is a lot more glamorous than my humble wash room at home.
Even the bathroom sink has a liberal dash of Art Deo style with its geometric shaped mirror and glass shelf. No detail has been overlooked.
All mod cons
As you walk around Eltham, it’s fascinating to see how the latest technology was used to make life as comfortable as possible in the 1930s.
The mahogany library has a recess where maps can be pulled up and down on a roller, no doubt to help the Courtaulds plan their many foreign trips.
Elsewhere, there’s a leather-panelled map room with a synchronous electric clock built into the map. It’s the 1930s equivalent of a digital clock today.
The Courtaulds loved hi-tech gadgets and the innovations were astonishing for their time.
The house is full of cutting edge technology from kitchen appliances and under floor heating to the loudspeaker system which could broadcast records around the house.
There was a centralised vacuuming system controlled from the basement, a precursor to the robotic cleaners of today.
It was accessed by special attachments in the skirting boards of each room. I could do with this cleaning system in my house today!
A house for living in
Practical designs are also seen everywhere in the house, from built-in furniture to concealed lighting.
A flower room was designed for sorting and arranging cut flowers, located close to the entrance hall. It illustrates the importance of flowers at Eltham.
The house boasted over 90 glass, porcelain and pottery vases. It’s proof that you can never have too many vases, especially if you’re rich and play host to society parties!
The flower room also had another unusual feature – a bamboo ladder which led up to a trap door which enabled the family’s pet lemur, Mah-Jongg, to come down from his quarters during the day.
Even the Courtauld’s pets lived a glamorous and pampered lifestyle. Mah-Jongg had his own lavish quarters on the first floor with central heating and walls decorated with Madagascan forest scenes.
This exotic pet accompanied the Courtaulds for 15 years on their travels and trips to their various homes. I’m not sure if he had a pet passport or not!
Another modern feature at Eltham was its cutting-edge communications technology. The family commissioned Siemens to install a sophisticated private internal telephone exchange throughout the house.
For those who wanted to make outside phone calls, there was also a 1930s coin-operated telephone booth for house guests.
Located in a small recess off the entrance hall, it’s fun to imagine the Courtauld’s troupe of visiting friends ringing their mates.
The Courtaulds were keen horticulturalists so it’s worth spending time looking at their impressive gardens, if you’re interested in plants and landscape design.
A quick tour of the grounds takes you through the sunken rose garden, the herb garden and the rock garden which drops down to the lake.
The loggia, pergola and triangular garden are pretty places to stop and admire the wisteria in summer. In spring it’s worth taking a walk through the bulb meadow and woodland garden
A huge weeping willow is a distinctive feature of the main gardens which was added by the Courtaulds next to Richard II’s 14th Century moat bridge. It’s also a popular spot for a picnic.
A place of surprises
Eltham Palace is simply one of those places which is constantly full of surprises.
Walking through its rooms today is a slightly surreal experience.
It’s almost as if the family had popped out for croquet or a game of tennis in the garden.
It also comes as a surprise to discover that the Courtauld family lived here only for eight years until they moved to Scotland in 1944.
Later, they lived abroad in Rhodesia and then Jersey until their deaths in the 1970s.
Just like Eltham Palace during Henry VIII’s reign, its owners grew tired of this wonderful place, moving on and abandoning this jewel of a house.
Today’s visitors to Eltham can indulge themselves in the millionaire lifestyle for a few hours as they stroll around the spectacular Art Deco house.
Eltham Palace is one of those houses which is haunting and unforgettable. Don’t miss it.
Tammy’s travel guide – Eltham Palace
Eltham Palace is located in Eltham near Greenwich in South East London.
It’s a 25 minute train ride from London’s Charing Cross station with regular services every 20-30 minutes. From Eltham station it’s a short 10 minute walk to the gates of the house.
Check the ever-changing opening times. Eltham is open daily Sundays-Thursdays but closed on Fridays and Saturdays during the main season.
The house is closed between 1 November-2014 and 15 February 2015 for the winter season.
There’s an admission charge but entry is free for English Heritage members.