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Eltham Palace
Art Deco in London
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Article added on March 1, 2004
  
One can find a series of examples of Art Deco architecture in London. For instance the Daily Express Building, the Apollo Victoria Theatre (formerly New Victoria Cinema) and Claridges, the famous hotel on Brook Street. One of the most original buildings is Eltham Palace.

Eltham Palace is one of the rare important English royal palaces to survive with substantial remains intact. Initially a manor house, it was acquired by the future Edward II in 1305 who subsequently passed it on to his queen, Isabella. Under Edward IV the Great Hall was added in the 1470s and other important changes were made. Around 1603 the palace was at its peak. However, in the 16th century, Eltham Palace was eclipsed by Greenwich Palace and declined rapidly: it was a farm for 200 years after the Civil War.

In 1933 Stephen and Virginia Courtauld acquired the semi-rural property with easy reach of central London. With the help of the architects John Seely (1899-1963) and Paul Paget (1901-1985), they built a private house adjoining the Great Hall, which was restored. For the new house, the used the latest technology and design (Art Deco) of their time.

The Courtaulds left Eltham Palace in May 1944 for Scotland and, in 1951, moved to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Stephen died in 1967. Because of the guerrilla war in Rhodesia, Ginie moved to Jersey in 1970 where she died in 1972. Their house in Zimbabwe, La Rochelle, is now a hotel.

In March 1945 the Courtaulds gave Eltham Palace to the Army Educational Corps which remained there until 1992. In 1995 English Heritage assumed management of the palace, and in 1999 completed major repairs and restorations of the 1930s interiors and gardens.

Eltham Palace's decorative schemes and furnishings are to a large extent reproductions by English Heritage, accurately recreated based on archive material and photographs to give an impression of the interior's appearance in the time of the Courtaulds.

Stephen Courtauld was born in 1883, the youngest of six children. The family owned a successful business empire based on the production of rayon (artificial or "art" silk). Stephen, who did not join the firm, inherited shares which generated an important fortune, which he used to pursue cultural and philanthropic interests.

In World War I Stephen joined the Artists' Rifles and, in 1918, was awarded the Military Cross. He rose to the rank of Major. After the war, he resumed one of his major passions: mountaineering in the Alps. In 1919, together with E. G. Oliver, he completed the pioneer ascent of the Innominata face of Mont Blanc.

The same year, Stephen met Virginia Peirano at Courmayeur. She was the daughter of an Italian father and Hungarian mother. Virginia "Ginie" was a divorced marchesa by her previous marriage to an Italian aristocrat. Stephen and Ginie married in 1923. The unlikely couple - she was vivacious, impulsive and chic, he was cautious and reserved - had no children. From 1926 on, the looked after two nephews of Ginie's: Peter (*1916) and Paul Peirano (*1918).

The Courtaulds encouraged individuals at the start of their career and supported the arts and sports scene. Stephen was a trustee of Covent Garden Opera House, made an important donation towards the construction of the Courtauld Galleries in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and, in 1926, built the London ice Club as the country's first post-war ice-skating rink.

Eltham Palace was the first major commission for the young architects Seely and Paget, who had formed their firm in 1926, with Paget running the administrative side of the office and establishing contacts with potential clients. They were inspired by Wren's Hampton Court Palace on the mistaken assumption that Wren was "restoring" rather than rebuilding the Tudor palace. Eltham Palace's decoration is eclectic with styles ranging from "historical" (the Drawing Room) to the new aesthetic of the 1930s (the Dining Room). The styles were a reflection of the Courtaulds' and their artistic advisers, the painters Winifred Knights and her husband Tom Monnington, the Swedish interior designer Rolf Engströmer (1892-1970) and the Italian decorator Peter Malacrida (1889-1980).

A few remarks on the 1930s Courtauld house:
 
The curved main entrance colonnade has infilled arches which are copied form Wren's Hampton Court and the Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, which was attended by both Seely and Paget. The junction between the 1930s building and the medieval Great Hall is marked by a projecting spiral staircase with a stone cap.

You enter the new house through glazed double doors which lead into the Entrance Hall, which is triangular in plan with rounded corners. The concrete glass domed roof is seven meter in diameter and lets the light flood through.

The Drawing Room was designed by Peter Malacrida for the firm White Allom. It incorporates a series of items salvaged from the Courtauld's former Music Room at 47 Grosvenor Square. The Drawing Room had a soft appearance with silk damask curtains and sofas covered in blue velvet.

Ginie Courtauld's panelled Boudoir was designed by Peter Malacrida. It is an example of the fashion for ceilings to be painted a lighter tint of the wall color, as in many of the house's main rooms. The ribbed, coved and mirrored ceiling with its concealed lighting is inspired by Art Deco.

The Library is in Mahogany and housed Stephen's collection of watercolors and other topographical works by artists such as John Sell Cotman, J.R. Cozens, Thomas Girtin and Paul Sandby. The collection included fourteen works by Turner, today at the Courtauld Institute; those on display are copies. Woodcuts, etchings and engravings by Albrecht Dürer, Turner and others completed the art collection. The Library contained reference works such as the Dictionary of National Biography and Encyclopedia Britannica as well as books on mountaineering, exploration, Greek and Roman coins and the medieval palace of Eltham. The Library also housed Stephen's collections of coins and English lustre-ware porcelain.

The Great Hall was built by Edward IV in the 1470s as a dining hall for the court. It was incorporated in the 1930s house. The Courtaulds intended to Great Hall to be used as a music room. Some of the restoration carried out is pure invention and not based on evidence, may be influenced by the contemporary film industry's view of Tudor England: in 1933, the year of construction of Eltham, Charles Laughton starred in The Private Life of Henry VIII.

Stephen Courtauld's Suite with a bedroom, a walk-in wardrobe and a blue- and green-tiled bathroom was designed by Seely. The pictures which originally hung in the bedroom were images of people Stephen admired: Beethoven (whose late string quartets were Courtauld's particular favorites) Julius Caesar and Ginie.

Virginia's flamboyant Bedroom, which has the appearance of a primitive temple, was designed by Malacrida and reflected the character of Ginie as well as of the designer. A classical shrine originally sat within the alcove above the bed. Copies of two paintings by Jan Breughel represent Air with Daphne and her Suitor Apollo and Water with Neptune and his Wife Amphitrite. The main light source and the central heating are concealed within the circular ceiling.

Mah-Jongg was the Courtauld's ring-tailed lemur. Stephen and Virginia had bought the animal at Harrods in 1923. Their beloved pet lived and traveled with them until its death at Eltham in 1938; the Courtauld's commissioned a memorial for the lemur. It was initially erected in the grounds at Eltham, but it is now at La Rochelle, the Courtaulds' last home in Zimbabwe. Mah-Jongg sleeping quarters at Eltham Palace were centrally heated. The walls were originally decorated with bamboo forest scenes by Miss G.E. Whinfield. A bamboo ladder enabled Mah-Jongg to descend to the ground-floor Flower Room.
 


This article is based on Eltham Palace, English Heritage, 44 p., edited by Kate Jeffrey in 1999.

The only book found with Amazon.co.uk is by Michael Turner: Eltham Palace, English Heritage Publications, 2001. Get it from Amazon.co.uk.

Eltham Palace, Court Yard, Off Court Road, Eltham, London, SE9 5QE can be reached by train from Victoria Station, Charing Cross and London Bridge.

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