Last updated on March 1st, 2021
Eltham Palace is one of London’s unique gems, a historic venue where Art Deco London is living it up with its medieval ancestors. Imagine a hotsy-totsy sleepover with both Henry VIII and Hercule Poirot. You have a coupe de champagne in one hand, and the ivories tinker away in the background. A lemur called Mah-Jongg and Caesar the Great Dane are chasing each other around a panelled Art Deco entrance hall fit for a Queen. Oh, did I mention the Duchess of York is one of the guests, as is Queen Mary? Naughty Henry is there too, before he met his unlucky wives and when he was still a charming rascal. There’s the throng of 800 merry Tudors feasting in the Great Hall after a sweaty day of hunting and jousting. Let’s go visit Eltham Palace and gardens.
“my goodness what a good feed we had! And good champagne!” Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (when she was still Duchess of York in 1936).
Eltham Palace History
About an hour’s drive from Central London and tucked away in the leafy suburb south of Greenwich is a palace, once the country’s most royally frequented dig. It was the place in which to spend Christmas, and monarchs from Henry IV to Henry VIII did just that.
By 1933, the unconventional Virginia and Stephen Courtauld would move in. Armed with a killer architectural and interior design team, they would sprinkle Art Deco magic around the place, retaining as much of the medieval quarters as they could and renovating the bits that had fallen into disrepair. The result would be a jazzy art deco party pad (with all the Roman and Greek flourishes you would expect), sitting cheek by jowl with a medieval mini Hampton Court. Eltham Palace is fabulously bonkers.
First recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, Eltham Palace belonged to William the Conqueror’s half-brother, the Bishop of Bayeux. In 1305, Eltham was gifted to Edward II who was a regular guest and whose second son was born here in 1316. It would go on become one of the most frequented palaces in the country.
A Royal Pad
In 1482, Edward IV, who installed the Great Hall, hosted 2000 people for Christmas at Eltham. It was one of only a handful of residences which could feed the 800-strong Tudor court. Henry VIII spent much of his childhood here, and on Christmas Eve 1514, Cardinal Wolsey took his oath of office as Lord Chancellor here. Henry eventually decamped to his new royal digs in Greenwich Palace, but he would return to take refuge from the Plague at Eltham in Christmas of 1525. Charles I would be the last king to visit before the Civil War would send the palace into ruin.
Stephen and Virginia Courtauld
In shimmied Virginia and Stephen Courtauld. Stephen was the youngest of six children. He was a textile millionaire, although he never actually worked for the family business. His brother Samuel founded our very own Courtauld Institute of Art on Strand. Virginia was a divorced Hungaro-Italian – vivacious, and eccentric, she had a large snake tattooed on her leg.
The Courtaulds were looking for a country bolthole, and Eltham Palace, in all its dilapidated glamour, was just the ticket. They hired architects Seely and Paget who designed the new architectural elements in the ‘Wrenaissance style.’ The couple introduced technological innovations such as gas heating and electric fireplaces in the bedrooms, internal phone and built-in audio systems, a flower room used for arranging cut flowers from the garden, ten en-suite bathrooms (a novelty in those days), a coin-operated pay-phone in the entrance hall (a tad stingy given the other extravagances of the place) and my favourite – a centralised vacuum cleaner system.
Stephen and Virginia Courtauld partied for eight years in Eltham, together with royalty, politicians, artists, actors and film producers, purchasing 13 Turners and a Mantegna for the delight of their guests. Tea parties, fireworks and all-night dancing were regular pastimes, and in July 1937, the couple hosted a 21st birthday celebration to which 450 guests were invited.
But the party came to a halt when the war took hold of Eltham. In 1940, over 100 bombs fell on the estate, four of which struck the Great Hall roof. A gas-proof Blitz-proof Bunker in the basement with its own bar wasn’t enough to keep the Courtaulds feeling safe and sound. They moved out in 1944, passing on the remaining Eltham 88 year-lease over to the army. English Heritage took over the entire property in 1995. It is now classified as one of their most haunted properties.
“the clock strikes, and there is a cocktail to impregnate one with energy…and then there is the extravagance of soaking in a bath cloudy with salts.” Cecil Beaton on Eltham.
A Tour of Eltham Palace
Cocktail hour would take place in the Entrance Hall with its domed 7-metre concrete and glass ceiling and bespoke Art Deco rug by Marion Dorn (the original rug is in the Victoria and Albert museum).
Portholes and Australian blackbean marquetry panels by Swedish architect Jerk Werkmäster are reminiscent of the great Art Deco luxury cruise liners. You’ll expect Gatsby to waltz down the stairs, martini at the ready.
The “Moderne” dining room designed by Peter Malacrida with its Greek and Roman details is a study in Art Deco style. The walls, ceiling cove and picture frames are lined in maple, and the Narini door ((below) features animals from London Zoo. Rose pink was the upholstery colour of choice, designed to show off the ladies’ frocks.
Malacrida would also be responsible for the design of the Courtauld yacht’s interior, ‘Virginia.’ Stephen’s brother-in-law, Captain Wilfred Dowman, who had restored the Cutty Sark, helped Stephen design the new superyacht.
Stephen’s luxurious suite at Eltham was designed by the architect Seely. The walls are lined in aspen and ‘Kew Gardens’ Sanderson wallpaper.
Even by modern standards, Virginia’s Malacrida-designed onyx bathroom is jaw-dropping. It’s bling at its best with gold-plated taps, a gold heated towel rail, and to finish, a statue of Cupid’s lover, Psyche. Virginia, or Ginie as she was known, was a difficult woman to work for. She worked her way through 14 maids in 2 years and was known to throw objects at them. She was also quite the shopaholic: when she ran up a walloping bill with her favourite dress designer, Stephen put a notice in the newspaper publicly washing his hands of her debts.
Mah-Jongg, lemur extraordinaire, had his own digs in Eltham. A bamboo ladder in the ground floor flower room led to his quarters next to mummy and daddy on the first floor, installed so that he could come up and down at leisure. He was purchased in Harrods in 1923 and lived with the Courtaulds for 15 years, travelling the world with them. (Mah-Jongg has his own Wikipedia page.)
Eltham Palace Gardens
The 19 acres at Eltham include a 100-metre herbaceous border designed by Isabelle Van Groeningen, with 18 different species of oriental poppy, 21 peonies and 20 Clematis. The garden displays include historic roses in a Sunken Rose Garden, a wildflower meadow and a striking lavender hedge.
Virginia bred black-necked Patagonian swans for the series of pools leading off from the newly installed rock gardens. The Japanese maple, a pine and juniper still remain from her original planting.
Visiting Eltham Palace with Kids
Grown-ups can sit in the Greenhouse Café and watch the kids jump and climb around the playground, inspired by the Courtaulds’ exotic travels. There are 19 acres of gardens with a moat, a medieval bridge and a picnic area with tables and benches. Inside, there’s a children’s audio tour packed with quizzes and games, a free stamping activity pack and medieval, World War II and 1930s dressing up gear.
Eltham Palace is an English Heritage property. You can book entrance tickets here.
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