London is a city of many surprises but one of the greatest is Eltham Palace – An Art Deco Palace contained within a Tudor Palace whose most famous inhabitant probably was a lemur called Mah-Jongg! Created for millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, Eltham Palace is part showpiece of Art Deco design and 1930s cutting-edge technology, and part medieval royal palace.
In what is now the London suburb of Eltham in the Royal Borough of Greenwich there is a surprising juxtaposition of an ancient royal palace and a modern Art Deco home. Along and near the River Thames in South East London the Tudors had three great palaces, all capable of accommodating a typical court of 800 people, Greenwich, Eltham and Nonesuch. Eltham Palace was a popular winter home for the royals from 1305 until 1526 with the court often spending Christmas there and foreign dignitaries coming into the channel ports being received there. Only the Great Hall, completed in the reign of Edward IV in 1482, survives.
The mix of medieval and modern design features is also typical of the whole site. The eclecticism confronting the visitor can be explained, in part, by considering the history of the Palace. The moat gives a clue to the age of the site. Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of William the Conqueror is listed in the Domesday Book as owning the original manor of Eltham in 1086. In 1295 the manor was acquired by Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham, also a soldier and statesman. He built the wall around the moat and a timber bridge, probably where the North Stone Bridge is today and established a park south of the moat. In 1305, Bek presented the manor to the Prince of Wales, the future Edward II, who had often stayed there.
In the centuries that followed, Eltham became the residence of a succession of monarchs including Edward IV, who built the Great Hall – that medieval-looking building – in the 1470’s. Charles I (1600 – 1649) was the last monarch to visit the Palace and by the eighteenth century, it was in a state of disrepair. Instead of putting visitors off, the ruinous state of the Palace actually attracted the attention of artists like Thomas Girtin and James WM Turner, whose watercolours of the Palace were considered to be ‘picturesque’. In the nineteenth century much of the Palace was restored when it became a ‘gentleman’s residence’. Towards the end of the century the Board of Works continued this restoration.
In 1933 Stephen Courtauld – millionaire, war veteran and patron of the arts – looked to the suburb of Eltham as the setting for a breathtaking new home. His vision was to link a modern, fashionable residence to the Great Hall of a medieval royal palace and to create a stunning home where his Italian wife could entertain with gaiety and flair. They employed architects John Seely (1899–1963) and Paul Paget (1901–1985) and fashionable Mayfair interior designer the Marchese Peter Malacrida (1889–1980) to design a new private house in the Art Deco style to adjoin the existing Palace building, which was extensively restored. Malacrida also designed the interiors of the Courtauld’s luxury yacht, Virginia (launched in 1930 at Dalmuir on the Upper Clyde in Scotland). When Virginia was launched a contemporary commentator made the point eloquently: “Few will deny that the steam yachts built before the war had a more graceful and pleasing appearance than many of the motor yachts that have been designed during the last decade. But the M. Y. Virginia, with her clipper bow, her long overhanging stern, her raking masts and funnel and her topgallant focs’le, fully upholds the traditions of steam yacht design for beautiful vessels. The features named, however will cause no surprise when it is known that this 712-ton yacht was designed by G. L. Watson and Co….”
Virginia was built at the Dalmuir yard of William Beardmore & Co. on the upper Clyde and launched in June 1930. The use of diesel engines and certain other design features such as the full beam deck house forward on the main deck allowed the designers to include significantly more interior volume than had been possible on previous yachts of this style. For the interior decoration the Courtaulds turned to the Marchese Malacrida who would later be responsible for many of the interiors at Eltham Palace. Unlike the exterior profile the interior was as cutting edge as their home ashore. They used their yacht extensively sailing on long cruises to the Greek Islands and the Baltic and stationing her in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) they sailed the South China Seas where Stephen Courtauld added to his famous orchid collection. She was requisitioned by the navy in 1940.
Stephen Courtauld was so rich he never had to work. He trained as a brewer but inherited shares from his family’s artificial silk empire, manufacturing rayon to maximise his material gains. At the beginnning of the First World War he joined the Artists’ Rifles and was awarded the Military Cross. After the war he resumed one of his great passions, mountaineering.
In 1919 he completed the ascent of the Innominata face of Mont Blanc. In the same year he met Virginia ‘Ginie’ Peirano at Courmayeur in the Italian Alps. They seemed an unlikely couple – Stephen was so typically British and reserved his friends accepted ‘would not use two words if one would do’. Ginie, by contrast, was a vivacious, divorced marchioness and a descendent of Vlad the Impaler. She paraded the ultimate in chic and sported a large tattoo of a snake above her ankle. The couple became part of London’s Mayfair set, living at Home House in Portman Square (a Robert Adam’s showpiece but now a private club – it is open to the public by appointment) and later at 47 Grosvenor Square.
The couple established themselves as great philanthropists, putting their money behind Ealing Studios, The Royal Opera House and The British School of Rome. When the lease ran out at No 47, the Courtaulds sought a semi-rural property within Rolls Royce reach of the West End.
Eltham, then in Kent, fitted the bill and the couple hired architects Seely and Paget to restore the medieval Great Hall and build an adjoining property that would be large enough for them to entertain guests and house their extensive collections of art and furniture. During the three years’ building work Stephen and Ginie went cruising around Europe in their yacht Virginia, seeking ideas for the ultimate modern home. They moved in on March 25, 1936. It seemed they had everything.
Combining Art Deco and ocean liner style, Eltham Palace is a stunning masterpiece of twentieth-century design next to the remains of a medieval royal palace which was originally Henry VIII’s boyhood home. Art Deco flourished through the 20s & 30s popularised by the Paris Exhibition of 1925 and was applied to all forms including architecture. Influences included Cubism (with zigzags & geometricals), Ancient Egypt (following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter & Lord Carnaervon in 1922) and Aztec & Mayan art (from South America & Mexico). It was a machine age style which utilised the innovations of the times such as plastics, chrome & aluminium. At a time of economic depression and the approach of war there was a desire for escapism. People enjoyed the pleasures of life during the ‘Jazz Age’. Speed and streamlining became important especially in the new modes of travel such as the first commercial flights, trains such as the Orient Express and ocean-going liners. Stephen Courtauld with his yacht echoed the ocean liner feel in much of the interiors at Eltham, no more so entrance hall by Ralph Engstromer which is flooded with light by a concrete glass domed roof. The design influences are represented on a marquetry panel by the Swedish artist Jerk Werkmaster showing a Roman and Viking soldier against background scenes from Scandanavia and Italy.
The dining room features pink leather upholstered chairs and black-and-silver doors, portraying animals and birds from London Zoo. Completed in 1936, the exterior of the house was built in sympathy with the older building, using a red brick design inspired by Hampton Court Palace. But the interior was (and remains) a showpiece of glamorous 1930s design. The house incorporated the latest technology such as concealed electric lighting, centralised vacuum cleaning, its own phone system and a loudspeaker system that allowed music to waft around the house.
Luxury also emanates from the centrally heated sleeping quarters of the Courtaulds’ pet ring-tailed lemur, Mah-Jongg. Stephen and Virginia had bought the animal at Harrods in 1923. Their beloved pet lived and travelled 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.
Stephen Courtauld was a director of the famous Ealing Film Studio. Visitors can also enjoy an original 10-minute Courtauld home movie, restored using the latest technology. It gives an intimate glimpse of the millionaire’s family swimming, admiring their gardens, and relaxing with their lemur and other pets. As you leave the opulent 1930s house and enter the medieval palace, the interior presents a striking contrast. The Great Hall was built for Edward IV in the 1470s, and Henry VIII spent much of his childhood here.
The 19 acres of beautiful gardens surrounding the palace include both 20th-century and medieval elements. These include a rock garden sloping down to the moat, a medieval bridge, herbaceous borders inspired by modern designer Isabelle Van Groeningen, a sunken rose garden and plenty of picnic areas. The garden is special at any time of year, but highlights are the spring bulbs display and the wisteria cascading over the classical pergola in summer. The setting within a moat and with the footings of the ancient palace around provides plentiful visual interest and sightlines.
Sir Stephen Lewis Courtauld, MC, (1883–1967) was a member of the wealthy English Courtauld textile family (he was the youngest brother of Samuel Courtauld, founder of the Courtauld Institute of Art). He did not enter the family business but his wealthy background enabled him to travel extensively and to pursue cultural and philanthropic interests — most notably, the redevelopment during the 1930s of Eltham Palace in Eltham, south-east London. Serving in the Artists’ Rifles during World War I, Courtauld won the Military Cross in 1918. After the war, in 1919, as an enthusiastic mountaineer, he completed the first ascent of the Innominata face of Mont Blanc in the French Alps. 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, they looked after two nephews of Ginie’s: Peter (*1916) and Paul Peirano (*1918).
Courtauld was financial director of Ealing Studios, a trustee of the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden, and provided financial support for the Courtauld Galleries in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.
During the Battle of Britain, more than 100 bombs fell on the grounds and four on the Great Hall. The danger of being so close to London became too much for Ginie, who was also mourning the death of her nephew Paul Peirano. The Courtaulds moved to Scotland in 1945. It was the end of a dream, an end of an era. London society had changed, and they, unlike most Londoners, had the means to get away. In 1951 they moved again, to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. After Stephen’s death in 1967, Virginia moved to Jersey in 1970 where she died in 1972.
Their home in Rhodesia was built in the French Chateau style and named La Rochelle in honour of his antecedents as the Courtaulds were originally Huguenot gold and silversmiths who came to England as refugees form religious persecution. In Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) they became engrossed in the communities living around La Rochelle. They saw a great social need and established a school and home-craft industry for their Black workers. In 1964 they funded an agricultural training farm named Kukwanisa in the Tsonzo area of Nyanga, initially an outstandingly successful venture but which fell into disrepair during the war years. During the Rhodesian War much fighting took place in this countryside. Insurgents were smuggled across the Rhodesia/Mozambique border just a few miles away. La Rochelle was not touched because the owners were sympathizers with the rebel movement. War planning meetings took place in this chateau. As a patron of the arts, Stephen gave funds for the building of a well-equipped theatre in nearby Umtali (now Mutare) which was eventually named the Courtauld Theatre. Further gifts to the town included the construction of Queen’s Hall and a pavillion at the showgrounds. They also funded the land and building costs for a multi-racial Club.
Turning to national needs in Harare, the generous couple helped to establish the National Art Gallery, the concert hall at the College of Music and contributed generously to the newly-opened University. They also endowed the Bulawayo Theatre but in general the Courtaulds were modest about their support of the country, so much so that few people knew of their generosity. They even extended helping hands to a clinic on the shores of Lake Nyasa (later Malawi) and in fact it was only after quite a lot of persuasion by the Prime Minister at that time, Roy Welensky, that Stephen reluctantly accepted a British knighthood.
After Sir Stephen’s death in 1967, Lady Courtauld faithfully carried on their joint dreams and plans for La Rochelle and Zimbabwe in his memory and before her death in 1972 she bequeathed the entire estate to her “family” as she called the people of this country, the country that they both loved so much. Specific gifts were carefully outlined in the will and although the Turner paintings went back to the UK, beautiful one-off prints were sent back to grace the walls of La Rochelle’s dining room.
Despite the considerable evidence of his life he left behind and his accomplishments Stephen Courtauld is for me a perplexing figure. Here was a man rich enough never to have to work and with the riches to allow him to indulge his interests in times when there was great deprivation, Edwardian Britain in the 1910’s, the cataclysmic decade of the Great War, the “roaring 20’s” when the “Land fit for Heroes” degenerated into the class war of the Great Strike, the Depression of the 30’s, the privations of the Second World War and the hungry 50’s afterwards were rationing in a war battered Britain lasted until 1955.
Stephen Courtauld obviously was a brave man who cared about his country, attaining the rank of Major and an M.C. for bravery in the Great War, an accomplished and inveterate mountaineer, a pursuit which requires stamina and bravery and a great patron of the arts and learning, and a civic minded person who volunteered on the home front in the Second World war and cared about his adopted country of Rhodesia and the plight of its black inhabitants to the extent of sympathising with the rebels. However the question must remain how in his gilded cage he related to ordinary people. After the First World War they lived in a huge house at No. 9 Grosvenor Square. They moved to Eltham Palace where they had spent a small fortune building their new wing and restoring the Great Hall and the gardens to create what even today is a perfect house only to move out and surrender their lease in 1944 because Virginia had been so traumatised by the wartime bombing and because the pre-war social scene had disapeared. It may also be that the house had memories of their nephew, Paul Peirano, who they brought up as their own son and who was killed on active service. They then bought a Baronial Mansion on 24,000 acres in Argyll but moved out in 1951 because Virginia got depressed with the damp winters. They then moved to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where the fact they were white settlers in a black land became very evident when, as a widow, she had to leave because of the civil war in 1970 and died somewhat isolated in Jersey in 1972.
So the question remains; despite their great wealth, contacts and interests and ability to travel and live in a style unimaginable to most people where did the Courtaulds belong and did they really feel part of something they could call home?
This most intriguing of London homes was always worth visiting but is even more so now. After a £1.7 million project Eltham Palace reopened on 3 April 2015 with five new rooms to enjoy including a billiard room, luxurious walk in wardrobe and a luxury bomb shelter!
Tilt Yard Approach