Sunday, 5 December 2010

Eltham Palace Part Three

The Dining Room at Eltham Palace is another stunning space designed for opulent entertaining whilst utilising some of the most technically advanced innovations. Thus, despite being hidden from view, the overhead lighting and central heating were highly efficient. In fact the heating was perhaps a little too effective as guests were wont to complain that the place felt over-heated, a criticism that will never be hurled at Brimstone Butterfly Towers during this bitingly cold winter.

The silver Greek key design of the ebonised dining room doors inset with depictions of exotic animals, including the Courtaulds’ pet ring-tailed lemur Mah-Jongg, hint at the glamorous décor beyond. The central panel of the coffered ceiling is burnished with aluminium leaf. Due to its prohibitively expensive manufacturing costs there was a time when aluminium was even more costly a metal than gold. An electric clock and a barometer have been inset into one of the birdseye maple veneered walls. The 14 dining chairs, all faithful replicas of the 1930s originals, are covered in apricot coloured leather and would not look out of place in the most design conscious of 21st century homes.

The Aviatrix’s attention was caught by the collection of Grecian vases on a pedestal table. She said they reminded her of her own time at the British Library. By contrast, for me the Ancient Egyptian Galleries will always take centre stage in my memories of the British Library, when it was still housed within the British Museum. 

Returning to the Entrance Hall, we made our way up the flight of stairs, which sweep up on either side of the Roman and Viking soldiers. Large unglazed porthole windows were cut into the walls of the staircase allowing visitors to glance into the corridors below as well as allowing the latter access to daylight. The bedroom suites are all to be found on the second floor.  I noticed that one locked bedroom door still bore the legend “Batmen,” another reminder of the mansion’s army past.

Not surprisingly the grandest bedrooms belong to Virginia and Stephen Courtauld respectively. Stephen’s aspen lined bedroom is darker and more masculine in tone than his wife’s, although the subdued lighting contributing to the gloomy atmosphere might well arise from the need to protect the hand blocked wallpaper. The latter depicts scenes from Kew Gardens. I instantly recognised the Chinese Pagoda.  I had once walked to the very top of that folly on a sweltering summer’s day with the Aviatrix, my exertions not made any easier by the fact I was wearing a tightly laced corset at the time.  Like the wallpaper, Stephen’s adjoining bathroom is also in shades of blue and green. Compared to the gloom of Stephen’s, the honey-toned hues of Virginia’s wood panelled bedroom with its exquisite accents of inlaid marquetry positively glowed by comparison. I admired the way the curved sliding doors had been built into the walls to add to the overall streamlined effect of the large circular room. One of these doors led into Virginia’s bathroom, which is dominated by a gold mosaic alcove with a bust of the Goddess Psyche perched above the marble bath. Rather bizarrely, there is a small notice below the statue pointing out that it was donated to Eltham Palace by a “close sister” of Stephen’s.  One wonders at the intriguing history of the family that it was felt necessary to emphasise to all and sundry that a sibling was “close” to her brother.

The Venetian Suite incorporates authentic Venetian panelling from the 18th century with 1930s mirrored walls painted with arabesque motifs. According to the guidebook it transpires that what I took to be a built in cupboard half projecting out of the wall, turns out to have a 17th century Tabernacle on top of it.  I have no idea why a tabernacle should have been placed in this former bedroom. Nowadays the Venetian Suite serves as a viewing room for visitors to sit back on benches and watch clips of home movies from the Courtauld family archive.  They show Virginia and Stephen with friends, family and the children they raised in the house. They were not their own as Stephen had been well into his 40s when they first married and Virginia was allegedly much older. The films also show their various pets. In one sequence the Courtauld family is shown mugging for the camera in some far flung African country, their private aeroplane in the background. When they were not flying around the globe they could sail the world on their luxury yacht, Virginia.

All the guest suites enjoyed the unprecedented luxury for the 1930s of having fitted laminated wardrobes, dressing tables, internal telephones, electric fireplaces as well as their own en-suite bathrooms, often with sunken baths.  When the Aviatrix peeked into one wardrobe she saw a fur coat inside which reminded her of one her own mother had once proudly sported. I very much doubt if it had ever been one of Virginia’s.  

One bedroom has been kitted out as it might have looked when the Army took over the palace with a single bed, a record player and civilian clothes and an army uniform hanging in the wardrobe.

A corridor links the art deco mansion to the minstrel gallery of the Great Hall. The interior is 20th century but part of the black and white timbered façade dates from the 15th century. On the landing en-route to the minstrels’ gallery we passed a white marble bust of Virginia Courtauld. With her hair tied into a chignon at the nape of her head Virginia Courtauld looked for all the world like her more famous namesake, the novelist Virginia Woolf. From a vantage point along the corridor I was able to take in the 15th century half-timbered façade, the glass dome of the Entrance Hall and the medieval Great Hall all a single glance.

When it came to repairing the Great Hall, the Courtaulds had made the same mistake as their 19th century counterparts at Charlton House. In both instances, the owners had fondly imagined that any Great Hall worth its salt must have had a minstrels’ gallery. There is no archaeological evidence to suggest that there was ever a minstrels’ gallery at Eltham in its heyday as a royal palace. Still, the fretwork balcony did afford a fine view over the hall, bringing into prominence the Venetian gondolier’s lights the Courtaulds had affixed to the walls and the stained glass they added to the stone mullioned windows decorated with royal insignia.

In one mullioned window, elsewhere in the palace, an image of Elizabeth I had been set into the leaded lights.

Viewed from the ground, Henry VIII would have recognised the hammer beam roof of the Great Hall although it might well have been painted and gilded in his era. He would also have recognised the double height stone oriel windows at the dais end of the hall. He would not of course have been familiar with the Orangery added by the Courtaulds. I took a rather dashing picture of the Aviatrix in her flying leathers within the modern extension, the effect somewhat marred by the obligatory blue plastic bootees on her feet.
The doors by the dais once led to the royal apartments. Now they lead to prosaic thrones made of white porcelain for hoi polloi to mount. Nevertheless, in terms of sheer luxury such conveniences far surpass the velvet lined close stool a medieval monarch would have employed to similar ends. The arched recesses which
would have led to the pantry and the buttery still remain in situ at the other end of the hall along with the very hinges that the oak doors would have hung from. The service wing itself vanished centuries ago. A small glass cabinet displays archaeological finds discovered at the site over the years.

When I first went to Eltham Palace a number of years ago the doors in the Great Hall were wide open and I could stroll into the grounds beyond to see Will Somers, Henry VIII’s court jester, walking around on stilts. (Little did I know that I would come across the same actor playing Will Somers at Hampton Court in January this year, a decade after we had first met. When we went in November not only were the doors of the Great Hall closed but so too were the grounds, which was a great pity as I would have loved to have been able to explore the exterior in more depth, the more so since the Courtaulds had made as much a decorative feature of the external entrance to the mansion as the interior. By leaning back into an evergreen hedge I tried to capture as much of the restricted view of the exterior as I could. I assume that more of the grounds will be open again in the spring and summer.  I do recall partaking of a pot of tea and a slice of cake on the terrace there. In November such was the heavy demand for the restaurant, we decided not to wait for a waitress in a black frilly headdress and apron to beckon us to a vacant table but made our way back into Eltham instead.

The Aviatrix is keen to return in the summer months when the gardens are in full bloom. Even without the added pleasure of being able to saunter around the grounds and not withstanding the blue plastic bootees, Eltham Palace is well worth a visit, the more so in the winter months when so few stately homes are open to the general public. For those unable to get to the palace in person it features in the recent remake of Brideshead Revisted as well as the Gucci for Men advertisement starring James Franco.The resemblance struck me only a few moments ago when I sudddenly thought: "Hello, that place looks strangely familiar!" The advertisement features the Entrance Hall and the upper floor corridors at Eltham Palace. Both the Cad of Kensington Gardens and Eggnog  wore Gucci for Men, which is probably not the kind of endorsement such a company would wish to be associated with unless they were keen to appeal to utter bounders.