Thursday, May 30, 2013

Eltham Palace, London

Eltham Palace, London.
Image via Flickr.
One of the Great Houses of London that, sadly, The Devoted Classicist has never visited is Eltham Palace.  Although essentially an Art Deco mansion, the Great Hall dates from the 1470s, built by Edward IV.

The site plan of Eltham Palace
showing the remaining buildings.
Image via british-history.ac.uk
In the 16th century, Eltham was eclipsed by nearby Greenwich Palace which had river access.  Eltham was continued to be used for hunting until the English Civil Was when the trees and deer were removed.

A view of Eltham Palace, about 1653,
said to be by Peter Stent, just before
major demolitions in the 1650s.
Image from English Heritage.
 
"The North-East View of Eltham Palace in the County of Kent",
a 1735 color engraving by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck.
Image from English Heritage.
Eltham Palace was used as a farm with the buildings leased to tenants. A villa was built within the moat walls in the early 19th century.  A campaign to save the Great Hall resulted in restoration in 1828, but it was still used as a barn.

The Great Hall at Eltham Palace
as it appeared in a 1937 issue of  Country Life
during the residency of the Courtaulds.
Photo from Country Life Library.
 
Stephen Courtauld, brother of textile magnate Samuel who founded the Courtauld Institute of Art (which, along with the Courtauld Gallery [Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art], is located in Somerset House, London), and his wife Virginia "Ginie" leased Eltham from the Crown Commission in 1936.  Stephen Courtauld did not enter the family business, but after serving in World War I, his wealth enabled him to travel extensively and pursue his cultural and philanthropic interests. Stephen Courtauld was financial director of the famous British film company Ealing Studios, a trustee of the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden, and he provided financial support for the Courtauld Galleries in Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum.

Stephen and Virginia Courtauld
in the Drawing Room of the former home
with their pet ring-tailed lemur
Mah-Jongg.
The 1934 portrait was painted by
Leonard Campbell Taylor.
Image via English Heritage.
A property of The Crown Estate, Eltham Palace had essentially been discarded by the monarchy, but the Courtaulds saw the possibilities to make it a fashionable home where they could entertain and develop their interests in orchids (Stephen) and roses (Ginie).  Alterations were allowed with only a few provisions to save the hall and some fragments of 15th century architecture.  Architects John Seely and Paul Edward Paget created an opulent house with an exterior in the Wrenaissance style (named after Christopher Wren) popular in high-style English architecture of the day.

A panoramic view of the entrance to Eltham Palace.
Photo from Wikipedia.
The interiors, however, were sleek Art Deco and reminiscent of a Hollywood film set, not surprising with the Ealing Studios connection.  Having all the modern conveniences:  radiant heating concealed in ceilings and floors, synchronized electric wall clocks, and a central vacuum system, much of the furniture was built-in and the most of the walls were covered in expanses of exotic wood veneers to maximize the modern, uncluttered experience.

Ground Floor and First Floor Plans
of Eltham Palace.
Image from English Heritage.
With the exception of the Entrance Hall, most of the other rooms were designed by Peter Malacrida, an aristocratic Italian playboy/decorator.  (Malacrida also designed the interiors of their luxury yacht "Virginia").

The restored Entrance Hall at Eltham Palace.
Photo from Country Life Library.
The Entrance Hall is an equilateral triangle with curved walls and a domed ceiling.  The 19 ft diameter Art Deco carpet was designed by Marion Dorn;  the original is now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, but a replica has been made to cover the wooden dance floor.  Also, replicas of the original furniture has been made by Neil Stevenson.  Extraordinary inlaid wood panels by Swedish designer Rolf Engstromer decorate the walls of Australian black bean veneer flanking the entrance.

The restored Dining Room.
Photo from Country Life Library.
Another view of the restored Dining Room.
Photo from Country Life Library.
The fireplace in the Dining Room.
Photo from English Heritage.
The walls of the Dining Room, designed by Peter Malacrida, are bird's eye maple with the ceiling covered in aluminum leaf.  A bold Greek key motif in black lacquer and aluminum leaf is featured on the passage doors of the room and the fireplace.

Mrs. Courtauld's Bedroom, restored.
Photo from Country Life Library.
The fireplace in Mrs. Courtauld's Bedroom.
Photo from Country Life Library.
In Mrs. Courtauld's bedroom, pilaster-like vertical elements of contrasting tones of wood-grain feature inlaid motifs in the neo-baroque style.

The tub in Mrs. Cautauld's Bathroom.
Photo from Country Life Library.
Mrs. Courtauld's bathroom was a luxurious modern interpretation of a classical bath with onyx, marble and gold mosaics.

The Boudoir in 1937.
This photo was not published.
Country Life Library.
The Boudoir fireplace
as seen in a 1937 issue of Country Life.
Photo from Country Life Library.
The Boudoir featured indirect lighting and a long sofa built-in with bookcases in a niche across from the fireplace.  An embossed leather map covers the chimney breast.

Mr. Courtauld's Study
as seen in a 1937 issue of Country Life.
Photo from Country Life Library.
Mr. Courtauld's Study featured niches with sliding panels that allowed the display of a collection of watercolors to change.

Mr. Courtland's Bedroom
as seen in a 1937 issue of Country Life.
Photo from Country Life Library.
Mr. Courtauld's Bedroom featured a wide alcove lined with wood veneer and included built-in bedside tables and a corner fireplace.

Mr. Courtland's Bedroom
as it appeared May, 1999.
Photo by J Bailey from English Heritage Photo Library.
Concealed doors along one wall of Mr. Courtland's Bedroom opened to an en suite bathroom and a fitted dressing room closet.

An end of a Guest Room showing the
built-in dressing table and other features
as it appeared in a 1937 issue of Country Life.
Photo from Country Life Library.


The closets and built-in dresser
of a Guest Room as it appeared in a
1937 issue of Country Life.
Photo from Country Life Library.
There were numerous Guest Rooms, all with electric heaters and fitted with built-in furniture in the manner of a fashionable cruise ship cabin.  This type of interior was known as the 'Cunard Style', named after the popular steamship line. 

The pet lemur Jongy in his room.
Photo via makeplaywander.blogspot.
The pet lemur's accommodations were well-designed as well.  Artist Mary Adshead (in the circle of Rex Whistler) was commissioned to paint murals evoking the jungles of Madagascar, Mah-Jongg's native home.  There was a hatch with a bamboo ladder that he could descend into the Flower Room of the Ground Floor. Although dearly loved by the Courtaulds, Jongy was a biter and had numerous disastrous encounters with the guests.  Purchased from Harrod's in 1923, Jongy died at Eltham Palace in 1938.

An aerial view of Eltham Palace.
Photo from English Heritage Photo Library.
The Courtaulds' gardens were laid out after an initial design produced by Mawson and Partners in 1935.  There were modifications to incorporate ornamental plantings, however, as the owners were keen horticulturalists.  New areas were laid out to include lawns, a mixed border, a sunken rose garden, a spring bulb meadow, and rock garden and a woodland garden.

The Triangle Garden.
Photo from Country Life.
 
Another garden view.
Photo from English Heritage.
The garden created in the dry moat.
The bridge dates from the 15th century.
Photo from Country Life.
The Courtaulds called the house Eltham Hall which they moved into in March, 1936, after first seeing it in 1933 and taking a ninety-nine year lease.  The time they occupied it as they had originally envisioned it was short, however, as bombing during World War II forced them to spend much time in shelter in the basement.  They gave up the lease in 1944 and went to Scotland to live.  In 1951, the Courtaulds decided to go to Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia, a self-governing British colony) and establish another house with an elaborate garden there.  Stephen Courtauld died there in 1967, and Virginia moved to Jersey in 1970 where she died in 1972.
Eltham Palace
overlooking the rock garden.
Photo from English Heritage.
Eltham Palace was used by the Army Education Corps after World War II.  In 1992, English Heritage took over responsibility for the site, carrying out a program of repair and restoration, and re-creating furnishings in some of the principal rooms using an inventory taken on the contents in 1939.  Also, the 1937 Country Life photos provided documentation of the interiors.  The house is open to the public and may be rented as a venue for wedding receptions and special events.  For more information about visiting Eltham Palace and Gardens, click here.
 
Anne Kemkaren-Smith of English Heritage will present a talk, "The Courtaulds of Eltham Palace: A Public Image and a Private Indulgence" on Sunday, June 2, 2013, at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.  Sponsored by Decorative Arts Trust, more information on the 2:00 presentation may be seen on the D.A.T. website here and click on Calendar of Events.  The event is free with regular museum admission and open to the public.

25 comments:

  1. A juxtaposition to the previous story...HOW TO incorporate the latest in Modern furnishings and artwork into an Architectural Shell of another Era entirely devoid of the Present!
    Deco, in all her glory, must have been received with a shock by some, but the lines in themselves are CLASSIC in their simplicity echoing Egypt and Japan...timeless!

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    Replies
    1. T.S., it IS interesting to compare the interiors, both intended to be 'Cutting Edge' with bespoke furnishings. The design of the latter has held up better than the previous will, I think. While I have no objection to interiors making a statement, far from it, I think the focus should be on good design rather just the 'Wow' factor. (It's too easy for it to be 'Ugh' instead). Thanks for your comments.

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  2. Whilst I am not madly in love with the interiors of the Art Deco period, especially on such a large scale, I have to admire the entrance hall; wasn't some of that area also recreated by David Linley? The cupola enhances that enormously. But what has surprised me seeing this is how much I enjoy the minimalism of the style, (perhaps effected because the huge expanse of every room). Perhaps I just don't enjoy Art Deco when it's kitsch and too reminiscent of a film set. Your post has certainly given me food for thought, although I'm not about to go out and redecorate in the Art Deco style.

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    1. C., there is a lot of "furniture store art deco" furniture that is just awful, old stuff that has been spray-lacquered and new stuff from the 1980s revival-onwards. Here, I think the architecture of the interior fittings and finishes were very successful. While there were several references found of the craftspeople and firms that were responsible for the restoration and re-creation, I did not come across the name of David Linley's firm; there is a good bit of wood inlay, however, and they certainly may have been involved. Thank you for commenting.

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  3. That is such a fabulous house -so sad it was only lived in for such a brief period!

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  4. By 1940, the Luftwaffe bombing was intense as shipyards on the Thames were not far away. And despite all the modern conveniences, I am sure staffing became an issue. Thanks for commenting, Stefan.

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  5. A Devoted ReaderMay 31, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    Just returned fro touring gardens in England, but I didn't know anything about Eltham Palace. Great post as usual - thanks so much for bringing this interesting landmark to our attention.

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    Replies
    1. A.D.R., this is a wonderful time of year to see gardens in England. I hope you saw the Chelsea Flower Show if you have never been before.

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  6. John, I really don't know what quite to say. It's an interesting house and a fascinating couple, but again, why would you want to take an historic structure from another era and do something so diametrically opposed? Shock value? Too much money? At least they went the full gamut with the interiors. Deco is not one of my favorite styles, but I admit that the house is interesting. What is more interesting are the inhabitants. I bet there were cheers heard 'round England when Jongy, the biter, went on to swing through the jungles of heaven or hell, depending on the view of his victims. Fifteen years of his nasty disposition was enough to burn through an army of friends. Maybe that's why the Courtaulds chose to leave England and start over in another country. If that had been today, can you imagine Jongy in an air raid? Katie, bar the door!

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    Replies
    1. L., it is a good reminder that jungle animals do not make good pets. Mah-Jongg has his own Wikipedia page for those interested in more.

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    2. Surely the pertinent point about the modernisation of Eltham is the fact
      that the new design had real distinction and the end result was a thing of
      quality, unlike the Mander house shown in the previous post whose new
      interiors are a travesty of what Modernism ought to represent.

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    3. T.W., certainly Good Design is Good Design and therefore almost timeless in terms of appreciation. It is interesting here at Eltham Hall, as the Courtaulds called it, fine art does not play such a large role in the decoration. Clearly, they preferred to support art institutions with their donations and left the primary artistic expressions in their house to the architecture, inlaid wood decoration, murals, and the such. It is a good program for patrons to consider.

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    4. Toby, I understand that this is considered good design. I guess my question was, and still remains, why do people take an historic home (in this case, centuries old) and change the interiors into something so completely alien to the original design? As an historian, to me it seems almost arrogant. I also think it's arrogant to let one's pet trump the comfort and safety of one's guests, particularly when the pet is an avid biter. The previous post showed a home that most of those who commented agreed was not in the best of contemporary taste and certainly did not fit with the home's original architectural style, but at the very least, the owners left the structure unharmed. It would be easy to go back and paint and furnish the place to period. Most buyers who have the funds to buy a home of that caliber would choose to do that anyway. Whereas, in this case, the house has been so totally transformed (and you must understand, I detest Deco) that one would have to spend a king's

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    5. Leigh, an important point is that the house, with the exception of the Great Hall, was built new in the 1930s. I certainly see your reasoning and thank you for your comments. Your last reply may have been cut short; please email me directly for a hint in leaving a reply.

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    6. Point taken. I must have missed that part, John. With that understanding, I will cease and desist, even though I'm still no fan of Deco.

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  7. What a splendid house! I've been traveling to England twice a year for the last 10 years for our antiques business and never heard of Eltham Palace. Geez! While I'm usually not keen on Art Deco, the interiors here are just beautiful and so chic.

    BTW, the concealed bedroom door with the French grisaille paper reminds me of the June 2008 cover of Italian Vogue featuring Linda Evangelista.

    Look forward to visiting this modern masterpiece!
    Cheers,
    Loi

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    1. Loi, I have yet to meet anyone who has been there, but at least a dozen have told me they plan to visit before year's end. Thank you for your comments.

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    2. Loi, that is a hand-blocked scenic wallpaper of Kew Gardens.

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    3. Kew? Even more special! I can't wait to visit.

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  8. So many wonderful details with style while no overdone. You had me with the bath tub and the gold mosaics! Great post...

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    1. J.K.S, one never ties of a fine classical bathroom. Thanks for commenting.

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  9. An almost Lynchian quality to the art-deco rooms, beautiful but slightly unsettling.

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    1. A.R., the Country Life photographer had removed many of the Courtauld's furnishings as an editorial statement. Although some of the belongings have returned to the house, most have been dispersed into private collections. But that is the reason for the stark sleekness that appears today.

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  10. Dear Devoted Readers, Annie's presentation on the house was excellent and I am sorry most of you could not join us. An important point, often underestimated by us here in the U.S., was that the Courtaulds were very rich, but not members of the aristocracy; they were considered the 'Merchant Class'. So this modern interior was an interesting social comment, not trying to emulate the country estates and stately homes of the landed gentry.

    Also, Annie pointed out that the interiors were drastically cleared of personal items for the Country Life photos as an editorial statement by the photographer. Some rooms were not photographed because they were stacked full of standing lamps, small tables, antique chairs, etc.

    And there were three large dogs in addition to the lemur. They had the run of the estate as well.

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  11. Interesting, I was reminded of the set designs of the failed film Dune, which clearly drew inspiration from the interiors of Eltham's contemporaries. There is something ambiguously sinister lurking just beneath the placid surface.

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