Technology and Luxury in an Art Deco Masterpiece

Eltham Palace, London

English Heritage

Eltham Palace and GardensOriginal Source: Eltham Palace and Gardens

Eltham Palace in South London is renowned for its spectacular 1930s interiors, created for millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld.

Filled with all the latest mod cons, Eltham epitomised the glamour and invention of British design between the wars.

View of Eltham Palace from the Garden to the East View of Eltham Palace from the Garden to the East (14th Century)Original Source: ELTHAM PALACE AND GARDENS

Medieval Palace to Art Deco Home

Eltham Palace has a long history. Best known today as a treasure trove of Art Deco design, the palace actually dates back to the Middle Ages. 

View of the Palace from Tilt Yard Approach, Eltham Palace View of the Palace from Tilt Yard Approach, Eltham Palace (14th Century)Original Source: ELTHAM PALACE AND GARDENS

Eltham was originally a moated manor house, built by Antony Bek, Bishop of Durham, in the late 13th century.

Edward Iii King Of England 1312-1377LIFE Photo Collection

In 1305, the palace was given to the future Edward II, and his son Edward III spent much of his youth at Eltham.

Henry VIII (Before 1626) by British SchoolDulwich Picture Gallery

In the Tudor period, the palace became a royal nursery for the princes and princesses, including a young Henry VIII.

Photograph of Eltham Palace in Disrepair (c.1900)Original Source: Eltham Palace

But the last king to visit Eltham was Charles I.

Over the following centuries, many of the buildings were demolished or fell into decay. The Great Hall remained largely intact because it was used as a barn.

Photograph of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld (1930)Original Source: Eltham Palace

Minor repairs were made to the hall over the years, but it was not fully restored until the arrival of millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s.

Eltham Palace and GardensOriginal Source: Eltham Palace and Gardens

The Courtaulds commissioned architects and designers to create a modern home that retained as much as possible of Eltham's medieval remains.

This included the restoration of the great hall.

Originally built in the 1470s, architects Seely and Paget intended the newly restored hall to look as medieval as possible.

Eltham Palace and GardensOriginal Source: Eltham Palace and Gardens

But it is for its striking Art Deco interiors that Eltham is now best known. The Courtaulds transformed a medieval royal palace into a home that showcased the absolute height of 1930s design and technology.

Centralised Vacuum Cleaner, Eltham Palace Centralised Vacuum Cleaner, Eltham PalaceOriginal Source: ELTHAM PALACE AND GARDENS

All Mod Cons

While their home may have medieval origins, the Coultaulds made sure that their renovation featured the very latest in modern conveniences. 

Eltham Palace and GardensOriginal Source: Eltham Palace and Gardens

The technology in the house was ahead of its time and very extravagant.

It was more akin to what you would expect to find in a hotel or ocean liner of the period.

All of the bathrooms, bedrooms and main reception rooms had underfloor heating.

There were also electric fires in many bedrooms and heated towel rails in the bathrooms.

Centralised Vacuum Cleaner, Eltham Palace Centralised Vacuum Cleaner, Eltham PalaceOriginal Source: ELTHAM PALACE AND GARDENS

There was a centralised vacuum cleaner in the basement linked by a network of pipes and sockets all over the house.

Clock, Eltham Palace Clock, Eltham PalaceOriginal Source: ELTHAM PALACE AND GARDENS

The house also featured synchronised electric clocks, like this stylish example.

A system of speakers around the house were linked to a gramophone.

Eltham Palace and GardensOriginal Source: Eltham Palace and Gardens

And most of the family and guest bedrooms included en-suite bathrooms.

Eltham Palace and GardensOriginal Source: Eltham Palace and Gardens

The basement was even converted into a luxury air raid shelter constructed during World War II.

Photograph of the Courtauld's at DinnerOriginal Source: Eltham Palace

Entertaining in Style

Stephen and Virginia loved to entertain. Those that were lucky enough to experience the hospitality of Eltham Palace were treated to the very best. 

Eltham Palace and GardensOriginal Source: Eltham Palace and Gardens

The Courtaulds provided their guests with luxurious accommodation.

A gas boiler in the basement provided an inexhaustible supply of hot water so that everyone could have a bath at the same time if they wished.

The dining room, with its striking geometrical design, featured a recessed ceiling covered in aluminium leaf. It had built-in concealed lighting to make the metal shimmer at night.

Eltham Palace and GardensOriginal Source: Eltham Palace and Gardens

And the rose pink leather upholstery of the dining chairs was considered at the time to be 'an ideal colour for setting off ladies’ dresses to the best advantage'.

View of Eltham Palace from the Garden to the East View of Eltham Palace from the Garden to the East (14th Century)Original Source: ELTHAM PALACE AND GARDENS

The Courtaulds liked their weekend guests to have plenty of energetic activities to keep them occupied.

Some complained that a weekend with Stephen and Ginie left them exhausted. Outside there was a pool and tennis and squash courts, with guests often roped into helping with gardening too.

Mah-Jongg Boss, Eltham Palace Mah-Jongg Boss, Eltham Palace by Graham and GrovesOriginal Source: ELTHAM PALACE AND GARDENS

Pets were a big part of the Courtaulds' lives and seem to have had the run of the house. Most notorious was Mah-Jongg the lemur, bought by Stephen at Harrods as a wedding gift for Ginie.

Photograph of Mah-Jonng onboard the Virginia (c.1930)Original Source: Eltham Palace

He had his own quarters and a ladder enabling him to move up and down stairs and was known to bite dinner guests under the table.

Stephen also had a parrot, who could imitate a phone ringing.

The Courtaulds continued to entertain – though on a reduced scale – at Eltham during the war. However, in May 1944, they moved out, having reputedly become tired of the bombing.

The Courtaulds' time at Eltham was a relatively brief moment in its long history. However, they left a remarkable legacy: a stunning Art Deco masterpiece that transports visitors back to an era of glamour and innovation.

Credits: Story

Contributors
Andrew Hann, Rose Arkle

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