As befits an ancient royal residence, Eltham Palace has a moat and is reached by way of the medieval North Stone Bridge. The water in the moat no longer flows all the way around the remains of the palace, enabling gardens to have been built in its stead. On the outer wall there is a rare reminder of Eltham’s regal past with two weather-beaten stone statues of a lion wearing a crown and a unicorn perched on either side of a small mullioned window. In heraldry the lion stands for England and the unicorn symbolises Scotland. Consequently, the statues must date from either the reign of King James I or his son Charles I. By the time Charles II came to the throne in 1660, Eltham had fallen into a ruinous state and would never again be a home to royalty. Charles had wanted to build a splendid new Stuart palace at nearby Greenwich and his architect, John Webb, had got as far as erecting the King Charles Building. As a result, King Charles had no plans to resurrect a palace more closely associated with other royal dynasties.
The first building that comes into view from the North Bridge is a wing of Virginia and Stephen Courtauld’s 1930s mansion. The lower floor now houses a tea room, kitchens and a shop. The walls are painted in what the Aviatrix and I assumed to be utilitarian green and cream, but apparently the colour scheme dates from the Courtauld’s time at the house. One of the double doors leading into the family part of the mansion still bears the inscription “Officers’ Mess” denoting the period when Eltham was occupied by the Army.
Before we could enter the family quarters we were required to don blue plastic overshoes to protect the floors and carpets. I believe the first time I ever wore such footwear was in Moscow as a schoolgirl. The Russian authorities had organised a daytrip for us to an historic mansion. Unfortunately I cannot bring to mind the name of the mansion in question. What most struck me about it was the warren of passageways concealed within the thick walls to enable servants to scuttle around the house unobserved whilst carrying out their menial duties.
The circular Entrance Hall at Eltham Palace is one of the most spectacular rooms in the entire house with its striking domed skylight, consisting of glass discs set in concrete, and the original art deco veneered panelling. The latter depicts a Roman soldier and a Viking soldier standing guard on either side of the entrance doors, with scenes of Italy and Scandinavia respectively alongside them. Virginia Courtauld was half-Italian, which would explain the Roman solider. I have been unable to find out why a Viking should be depicted, although I later noticed in Stephen’s study that there was a copy of Arthur Reade’s “Finland and the Finns.” On October 24, 1915 the New York Times gave Reade’s book a lengthy and glowing review: “so excellent a mine of information.” The New York Times also praised Finland, which was the first country in Europe to give women the vote, for its “wide-sweeping democracy of the franchise.” The New York Times reviewer went on to add that Finland “has spoken for all the world to hear in adoption of proportional representation in voting, in the passage of laws regulating the status and support of illegitimate children.” After such resounding praise and with my heart swelling with patriotic pride I must seek out a copy of Arthur Reade’s book for myself.
Paraphrasing Lewis Carroll: “Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English) I wondered why there were two gilded plaques depicting scenes from Alice in Wonderland above the Roman and Viking sentries. The latter are set so high up in the wall it would be quite easy to overlook such a charming detail. The circular rug with its geometric design and the tub chairs with their white loose covers are all faithful replicas of pieces the Courtaulds commissioned from contemporary Swedish designers. The two warriors also guard the way to the Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s cloakrooms. I had assumed that these cloakrooms were added for modern day visitors caught short but in fact they date from the 1930s.
Leading off from the hall is a glass cubicle containing a black bakelite coin-operated telephone. I remember seeing such telephones with their two buttons labelled A and B in my early youth but they became obsolete before I had the opportunity to use one. The late Paul Getty, generally regarded as the richest man of his generation, attracted a degree of notoriety for installing a similar coin operated telephone in his magnificent Sutton Place, a Tudor manor house near Guildford in Surrey. At first such a gesture might seem like questionable penny pinching. Getty later defended his actions, pointing out how he had been driven to take such steps after one too many people had flagrantly abused his hospitality and run up huge telephone bills, which of course, he was forced to foot. In the Courtauld’s case, Stephen apparently had an aversion to telephones, something I can readily identify with.
Across from the phone box is the purpose built flower room complete with sink and a range of cupboards containing a multitude of vases. The idea was that freshly cut blooms could be brought straight in from the gardens and arranged in vases before being displayed elsewhere in the house. Ascending from the ceiling of the flower room is a curious bamboo ladder upon which has been placed a soft toy. The latter represents Mah-Jongg, the Courtaulds’ cosseted ringed tailed lemur. The mind boggles to think that such a creature was given free to roam the sumptuous art deco mansion. It is to be hoped that he was sufficiently house trained. The Courtaulds were so fond of their exotic pet that they had built for him his own heated quarters on the upper floor, the walls of which were decorated with scenes of a bamboo forest. Freezing as I currently am in my garret, it is more than a little galling to think that 70 years ago a mere pet had central heating in his sleeping quarters unlike this human denizen of Brimstone Butterfly Towers.
There is an impressive Italianate white marble fireplace in the Drawing Room. The painted ceiling beams are hollow to allow concealed lighting, one of the many state of the art design innovations the Courtaulds incorporated into their art deco mansion. The plaster panels inset into the window surrounds represent various ancient civilisations including Rome and Ancient Egypt, with the central conceit being that all civilisations will inevitably fall to dust and only the eternal peasant will remain. I imagine the cost of decorating and furnishing the Drawing Room alone would have kept an actual peasant family in comfort for many a year.
Not surprisingly given its name, the Boudoir is on a more intimate scale than the Drawing Room. I loved the long cream built-in sofa with its colourful quilted scatter cushions and the scalloped edged mirrors positioned at the very top of two walls facing at right angles to the coving. A huge leather map of Eltham Palace from the air dominates one wall. Such a map was a tongue-in-cheek response to the kind found in the grand houses of earlier generations of the English landed gentry, who were less keen on topographical authenticity and more on flaunting the idea that their estate was at the centre of their own universe.
I boldly took a peek behind the curtained–off arch by the sofa and found what proved to be a general depository for the same blue utilitarian chairs I had observed at Charlton House. It was also the source of the 1930s music playing over the loudspeakers. According to the guidebook, this space once displayed the many maps crucial for organising the Courtaulds’ extensive travel arrangements, which included sailing on their own luxury yacht, the Virginia.
It was perhaps befitting that on Remembrance Sunday I should find myself in what is known as the Library but could just as easily be described as Stephen Courtauld’s plain mahogany lined study. Stephen had been an officer in the Artists Rifles during World War One and had won the Military Cross for his exceptional bravery. In a niche above the fireplace stands a miniature copy in bronze of “The Sentry” by Charles Sargeant Jagger. The life size bronze original was designed as a war memorial and displayed inside the Britannia Hotel in Manchester. On the day I went, the statue of The Sentry in his army greatcoat was surrounded by a sea of commenorative poppies. After the horrors he must have witnessed in the Great War, Stephen’s desire to devote himself to a life of pleasure with Virginia becomes more understandable.
There are still a number of important rooms left to describe and I shall return to this subject anon.