30.03.2015
13:50

Eltham Palace (English Heritage)

Address:

Court Yard, off Court Road, Eltham SE9 5QE

Phone:

020-8294 2548

Website:

www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/eltham-palace-and-gardens

Opening times:

Sun 10:00–16:00

How to get there:

Station: Eltham (from Charing Cross), then bus 126, 161

Entry fee:

Admission charge

Additional information:

Café and shop

The manor of Eltham was one of the oldest estates belonging to the Crown and by the 14th century one of the largest and most frequented of the English Royal Palaces. Originally a moated manor house, it was a favourite Christmas residence of English sovereigns from Henry III to Henry VIII. Chaucer was clerk of the works to Richard II here, and here Henry IV entertained the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus. After Agincourt Henry V stayed at Eltham before his triumphal entry into London. The Great Hall, the most evident feature of the medieval palace which remains today, was constructed by Edward IV in 1475–80. Henry VIII was the last monarch to spend much time at Eltham, and after the Civil War both the palace and its grounds were given over to agricultural use. The Great Hall was used as a barn and romantic views of it as such were made by several artists, including Turner.

The Courtaulds and Eltham
In 1933 the site was purchased by the wealthy couple Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, who conceived a spectacular and luxurious house. Designed by Seely & Paget, the aim was to construct a glamorous and modern home while retaining as much as possible of the medieval palace. The result is an extraordinarily eclectic mix, the 1930s house incorporating the Great Hall and other palace walls, and the gardens, the medieval moat, and the exposed foundations of various royal lodgings. Externally the house is inspired by Wren’s Hampton Court, but inside a succession of stylish rooms was created by leading 1930s interior designers. A programme of restoration was completed by English Heritage in 1999.

Stephen Courtauld never joined the family textile firm, which manufactured rayon, but his inherited shares generated immense wealth. In 1923 he married Virginia Peirano, of Italian-Hungarian parentage. Both were interested in the arts (Stephen’s brother, Samuel, was founder of the Courtauld Institute Galleries and in modern design, and Eltham was conceived as a showcase for their art collection. The interiors were created by a team of artistic advisers, personal friends of the Courtaulds, including Winifred Knights and her husband Tom Monnington, the Swedish interior designer Rolf Engströmer (head of the Swedish company Jefta) and the Italian decorator Peter Malacrida. Malacrida, then working for the company White Allom, had been a neighbour of the Courtaulds in Grosvenor Square. The house was a stage for extravagant weekend parties, the quality of its materials and craftsmanship matched by the luxury of the innovative 1930s technological features: an internal telephone system, concealed ceiling lights, underfloor heating, speakers which broadcast music throughout the ground floor, and a centralised vacuum cleaner with sockets in each room.

Tour of the House
The entrance to the house, over the medieval bridge across the moat, is through a curved colonnade flanked by two tall staircase turrets. H. Carlton Attwood’s relief carving Hospitality directly above the door welcomes visitors. The Entrance Hall is triangular in shape, with light flooding in from Engströmer’s shallow domed ceiling, of concrete with pierced glazing. The walls are lined with Australian blackbean veneer with inset marquetry scenes incorporating Florentine and Venetian architecture, and landmark buildings in Stockholm. Large figures, a Roman centurion and a Viking, flank the entrance door. The central rug, with geometric patterns, is a reproduction of the original by Marion Dorn (V&A) and the furniture placed on it, under the dome, replicates Engströmer’s 1930s blackbean and walnut originals, upholstered in cream.

To the left is the
Dining Room, a bold Art Deco interior designed by Malacrida. The walls and ceiling are of maple flexwood, the ceiling having a central rectangular recess finished with aluminium leaf which shimmers in the lighting concealed around its perimeter. The ceiling also conceals the central heating. The fireplace contains a very early instance of an electric imitation log fire which is flanked by curved, ribbed aluminium panels, the whole surrounded by an Art Deco design in black marble with a Greek key design. The latter also appears on the ebonised doors and cupboards, which also have large applied lacquer designs of animals and birds.

The Drawing Room, to the right of the entrance hall, was also designed by Malacrida, in Florentine Renaissance style. Originally it would have had sumptuous soft furnishings in silk damask and velvet, with Turkish rugs on the floor. The false beams, with Hungarian folk art decoration, conceal lighting for the Renaissance pictures which once hung here, the most important being Veronese’s Astronomer and Patriarch, now in the National Gallery, Zimbabwe (the Courtaulds emigrated to Southern Rhodesia in 1951).

The corridor off the hall leads to Virginia Courtauld’s Boudoir, designed by Malacrida with a coved and mirrored ceiling with concealed lighting and a large sofa with attached side tables and shelves. The Library next door was originally hung with the Courtaulds’ collection of watercolours, including works by Turner now at the Courtauld Institute Galleries. Edward IV’s medieval Great Hall is at the end of the corridor. The Courtaulds conceived it as a music room and held great parties here. The impressive and lofty hammerbeam roof, with its carved tracery, was restored but the Minstrel’s Gallery, the carved screen and the stained glass are imaginative medieval-style creations. Instead of tapestries, the walls were hung with decorative rayon hangings.

From the entrance hall, the West Stairs lead up to Stephen Courtauld’s Suite, designed by Seely. The bedroom has walls of aspen veneer and expensive hand block printed Kew Gardens wallpaper. Virginia Courtauld’s Bedroom, by Malacrida, is approached through a circular lobby with a sliding door and niches for vases of flowers. The bedroom itself, with a circular ceiling with concealed lighting and heating, has walls of maple flexwood with inlaid marquetry. The bathroom is luxuriously appointed, with walls lined with onyx and a bath set in a gold mosaic niche with, above the gold-plated taps, a classical sculpture of Psyche.

Returning to the landing visitors can see Mah-Jongg’s Quarters, designed for the Courtaulds’ pet ring-tailed lemur, bought at Harrods in 1923. ‘Jongy’ enjoyed central heating, a bamboo forest mural and a bamboo ladder leading down to the Flower Room. He accompanied his owners everywhere and had his own small deckchair for foreign cruises. Among the guest bedrooms is the Venetian Suite, which incorporates 1780s Venetian panelling into Malacrida’s design of mirrored walls painted with elaborate arabesques.

The Grounds
The gardens retain their 1930s layout and include important remains of the medieval palace and its moat, particularly in the area of the Turning Circle and Squash Court. The South Garden retains its luxuriant 1930s herbaceous border and the sunken Rose Garden has at its centre a tranquil pool planted with water lilies. There is a rock garden with a gentle water cascade, and a wisteria-covered pergola made from Ionic columns salvaged from the Bank of England after its reconstruction in 1921.

The Courtaulds and Eltham

In 1933 the site was purchased by the wealthy couple Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, who conceived a spectacular and luxurious house. Designed by Seely & Paget, the aim was to construct a glamorous and modern home while retaining as much as possible of the medieval palace. The result is an extraordinarily eclectic mix, the 1930s house incorporating the Great Hall and other palace walls, and the gardens, the medieval moat, and the exposed foundations of various royal lodgings. Externally the house is inspired by Wren’s Hampton Court, but inside a succession of stylish rooms was created by leading 1930s interior designers. A programme of restoration was completed by English Heritage in 1999.

Stephen Courtauld never joined the family textile firm, which manufactured rayon, but his inherited shares generated immense wealth. In 1923 he married Virginia Peirano, of Italian-Hungarian parentage. Both were interested in the arts (Stephen’s brother, Samuel, was founder of the Courtauld Institute Galleries and in modern design, and Eltham was conceived as a showcase for their art collection. The interiors were created by a team of artistic advisers, personal friends of the Courtaulds, including Winifred Knights and her husband Tom Monnington, the Swedish interior designer Rolf Engströmer (head of the Swedish company Jefta) and the Italian decorator Peter Malacrida. Malacrida, then working for the company White Allom, had been a neighbour of the Courtaulds in Grosvenor Square. The house was a stage for extravagant weekend parties, the quality of its materials and craftsmanship matched by the luxury of the innovative 1930s technological features: an internal telephone system, concealed ceiling lights, underfloor heating, speakers which broadcast music throughout the ground floor, and a centralised vacuum cleaner with sockets in each room.

 

Tour of the House

The entrance to the house, over the medieval bridge across the moat, is through a curved colonnade flanked by two tall staircase turrets. H. Carlton Attwood’s relief carving Hospitality directly above the door welcomes visitors. The Entrance Hall is triangular in shape, with light flooding in from Engströmer’s shallow domed ceiling, of concrete with pierced glazing. The walls are lined with Australian blackbean veneer with inset marquetry scenes incorporating Florentine and Venetian architecture, and landmark buildings in Stockholm. Large figures, a Roman centurion and a Viking, flank the entrance door. The central rug, with geometric patterns, is a reproduction of the original by Marion Dorn (V&A) and the furniture placed on it, under the dome, replicates Engströmer’s 1930s blackbean and walnut originals, upholstered in cream.

To the left is the Dining Room, a bold Art Deco interior designed by Malacrida. The walls and ceiling are of maple flexwood, the ceiling having a central rectangular recess finished with aluminium leaf which shimmers in the lighting concealed around its perimeter. The ceiling also conceals the central heating. The fireplace contains a very early instance of an electric imitation log fire which is flanked by curved, ribbed aluminium panels, the whole surrounded by an Art Deco design in black marble with a Greek key design. The latter also appears on the ebonised doors and cupboards, which also have large applied lacquer designs of animals and birds.

The Drawing Room, to the right of the entrance hall, was also designed by Malacrida, in Florentine Renaissance style. Originally it would have had sumptuous soft furnishings in silk damask and velvet, with Turkish rugs on the floor. The false beams, with Hungarian folk art decoration, conceal lighting for the Renaissance pictures which once hung here, the most important being Veronese’s Astronomer and Patriarch, now in the National Gallery, Zimbabwe (the Courtaulds emigrated to Southern Rhodesia in 1951).

The corridor off the hall leads to Virginia Courtauld’s Boudoir, designed by Malacrida with a coved and mirrored ceiling with concealed lighting and a large sofa with attached side tables and shelves. The Library next door was originally hung with the Courtaulds’ collection of watercolours, including works by Turner now at the Courtauld Institute Galleries. Edward IV’s medieval Great Hall is at the end of the corridor. The Courtaulds conceived it as a music room and held great parties here. The impressive and lofty hammerbeam roof, with its carved tracery, was restored but the Minstrel’s Gallery, the carved screen and the stained glass are imaginative medieval-style creations. Instead of tapestries, the walls were hung with decorative rayon hangings.

From the entrance hall, the West Stairs lead up to Stephen Courtauld’s Suite, designed by Seely. The bedroom has walls of aspen veneer and expensive hand block printed Kew Gardens wallpaper. Virginia Courtauld’s Bedroom, by Malacrida, is approached through a circular lobby with a sliding door and niches for vases of flowers. The bedroom itself, with a circular ceiling with concealed lighting and heating, has walls of maple flexwood with inlaid marquetry. The bathroom is luxuriously appointed, with walls lined with onyx and a bath set in a gold mosaic niche with, above the gold-plated taps, a classical sculpture of Psyche.

Returning to the landing visitors can see Mah-Jongg’s Quarters, designed for the Courtaulds’ pet ring-tailed lemur, bought at Harrods in 1923. ‘Jongy’ enjoyed central heating, a bamboo forest mural and a bamboo ladder leading down to the Flower Room. He accompanied his owners everywhere and had his own small deckchair for foreign cruises. Among the guest bedrooms is the Venetian Suite, which incorporates 1780s Venetian panelling into Malacrida’s design of mirrored walls painted with elaborate arabesques.

 

The Grounds

The gardens retain their 1930s layout and include important remains of the medieval palace and its moat, particularly in the area of the Turning Circle and Squash Court. The South Garden retains its luxuriant 1930s herbaceous border and the sunken Rose Garden has at its centre a tranquil pool planted with water lilies. There is a rock garden with a gentle water cascade, and a wisteria-covered pergola made from Ionic columns salvaged from the Bank of England after its reconstruction in 1921.

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MUSEUMS & GALLERIES OF LONDON

Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

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