Marquetry, Lemurs and a Snake Tattoo – Welcome to Eltham Palace!

by Philip Butler

  • A semi-rural dwelling within easy reach of central London.
  • A groundbreaking design incorporating both ultra-modern technologies concealed within the character of a historic property.
  • Lavish, fashionably co-ordinated interiors and formal gardens with ample space for entertaining.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was the specification for last week’s episode of Grand Designs, but no, in fact this was Stephen and Virginia Courtauld’s tick-list when property hunting in the early 1930s.

Stephen (1883-1967), the youngest of six, came from an extremely wealthy family which owned a Rayon –  synthetic silk –  manufacturing business. Though not involved with the firm himself, Stephen’s inherited shares generated a considerable income, allowing him a life of leisure, pursuing personal interests such the arts and mountaineering.

Virginia, or ‘Ginie’ (1881-1972), was a lively vivacious character of Italian/Hungarian descent. A divorcee with (whisper it) a snake tattoo on her ankle, she was a dramatically different character to Stephen who was a cautious and reserved soul – even more so after time spent as a rifleman in the First World War. A classic case of opposites attract, the pair hit it off upon meeting, and were married in 1923.

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Stephen, Jonggy & Ginie in 1934 by Leonard Campbell Taylor – image via English Heritage

Both were enthusiastic patrons of the arts, with notable philanthropic activities including the funding of the country’s first post-WW1 indoor skating rink ‘The London Ice Club’ in 1926. Ginie was a born hostess, and regularly held charity events at the club, rubbing shoulders with the leading lights of the day.

Looking to move from their Mayfair home to more rural location still within easy reach of the galleries, clubs, opera houses and theatres of central London, the Courtaulds stumbled across the remains of a Tudor palace in Eltham. Set in substantial grounds with a moat surrounding the palace remains, the site was a in a poor state by the 1930s. The only remaining Tudor building, The Great Hall, had previously been put to agricultural use and despite some structural repairs and steel braces in the roof, had generally been left to decay since the 1660s.

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The Courtalds fell in love with the site and took out a 99-year lease from the Crown in 1933. They commissioned London architecture practice Seely and Paget to design a new residence on the site. The brief was to restore the Great Hall to its original state, whilst replacing some smaller 19th century properties with a modern country mansion that reflected the historic nature of the site. This was by far the most prestigious contract Seely and Paget had undertaken to date, and they built a close relationship with Stephen and Ginie that lasted well beyond the building’s completion. The exterior, clad in brick and stone was intended to sit comfortably against the existing Tudor Hall, but it received a mixed reception, with G. M. Young calling it “An admirably designed but unfortunately situated cigarette factory” in The Times. Undaunted by mixed reviews, the Courtaulds moved in on 25 March 1936.

Whilst the neo-historic exterior is more inspired by Christopher Wren than the creative boom of the inter-war years, the interior is a completely different proposition. The entrance hall – perhaps the most famous element at Eltham – was designed by Swedish architect Rolf Engströmer. Triangular in plan, it features curved walls lined with marquetry panels by Jerk Werkmäster. The intricate inlays on Australian blackbean veneer represent the most northerly and southerly points of Europe – a Viking and a Roman Solider stood beside Italian and Scandinavian architectural highlights.

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A 5.8m circular rug by Marion Dorn graces the central lounge area lit from above by a concrete and glass domed roof. The curvaceous walnut and blackbean furniture was designed by Engströmer specifically for the room. The items currently on display are replicas with the original rug held at the V&A and the furniture in Swedish Museum of Architecture.

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Other rooms in the palace were designed by Peter Malacrida, an Italian aristocrat and friend of the Courtaulds who took to interior design in the 1920s. Malacrida’s designs polarised opinion, being simultaneously called both ‘sensational’ and ‘phoney’ due to their flamboyant and enthusiastic recycling of historic themes.

The dining room is a tour-de-force in Art Deco glam, with recurring gilt geometric motifs and a ceiling covered with aluminium leaf.  By contrast, the drawing room reused many items from Stephen and Ginie’s previous Grosvenor Road home and was given a more historic appearance, featuring false timber effect beams, a large Italianesque fireplace and a floor covered in antique Turkish rugs.

Other ground floor rooms Malacrida designed such as the library and boudoir were more in keeping with the fashionable Moderne appearance of the entrance, with wooden panelling and integrated streamline furniture. The latter also featured a giant wall mounted map of the wider Eltham estate, a nod to an earlier fashion borrowed from large country estates, the key difference here being that the map was made from leather!

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Malacrida also designed Ginie’s bedroom suite on the first floor. The semi-circular bedroom was themed on a shrine, with insets and wall mounted plinths displaying deities. Like many of the ground floor rooms, it is clad with wooden panelling with marquetry detailing. The adjoining bathroom was even more opulent, with onyx lined walls, gold plated taps, and a statue of the goddess Psyche set in a golden mosaic covered niche.

It wasn’t just the interior furnishings that were ‘up to the minute’ at Eltham, the house boasted an enviable list of modern conveniences and ‘tech’. The building featured numerable different lighting effects throughout including down-lighters, spot lights and atmospheric trough lighting akin to that being pioneered in cinema auditoriums at the time. Electric fires were present in most rooms, while integrated synchronised electric clocks were fitted throughout. A speaker system allowed music to be played across the ground floor from one central gramophone, and electric bell pushes made contacting the servants a breeze. Other notable installations included a centralised vacuum cleaner with concealed pipes to every room, electric cookers and fridges, a fire alarm and gas fired hot water.

Though they didn’t have any children, their nephews Peter and Paul Perano also lived at Eltham. The other permanent resident was a little more unusual though; Mah-Jongg, or Jonggy, was a ring tailed Lemur purchased from Harrods in 1923. The Eltham design included a centrally heated sleeping quarters decorated with a Madagascan jungle mural by Gertrude Whinfield, presumably so that Jonggy would not feel homesick.

During the latter part of the decade, Eltham saw regular social gatherings and lively parties for the Courtauld’s wealthy circle of friends and acquaintances. In July 1938 Queen Mary paid a visit, later speaking enthusiastically of the ‘charming moat garden’ and their tea in the hall.

The joviality was short lived though. In 1944 the Courtaulds left Eltham for Scotland having spent just eight years there. The palace had suffered bomb damage during the war and Ginie found the ongoing threat of more attacks too great, as flying bombs zoomed overhead. The following year they donated the property to the Army School of Education which continued to use it until 1992. English Heritage took over care of the Great Hall in 1984, and the whole estate in 1995. They have gone to great lengths to restore the building back to its 1930s glory, reproducing furniture and interior décor where required to the original specifications.

To find out more about visiting, see the English Heritage website.

Further reading/information source – Eltham Palace English heritage Guide Book by Michael Turner

All photographs copyright Philip Butler 2019

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