6 Lovely Surprises at Eltham Palace
Eltham Palace is a bit of a mad place; an abandoned 14th century Medieval palace revamped by the rich Courtauld family in the 1930s, it’s full to bursting with odd juxtapositions and quirky details.
For instance, I can’t think of many country estates where this;
Is cheek by jowl with this;
So in celebration of this bizarre London gem, here’s 6 lovely surprises I encountered on my recent visit.
- Antony Bek (Bishop of Durham) leaves his country house to his friend Edward I on his death in 1311.
- The Crown pimps up the house into a royal palace and hosts lavish celebrations (including Christmas 1482 when over 2,000 attended!)
- Young King Henry VIII spends the majority of his boyhood in Eltham, enjoying the local hunting grounds.
- Greenwich takes over in popularity and Eltham is forgotten by the royal court. By the 18th century it’s a picturesque ruin.
- In 1859 Eltham avoids destruction and is restored between 1911-1914.
- The wealthy Courtauld Family buy the house, employing architects Seely and Paget to create a seriously opulent house.
- The Courtaulds are only there until September 1944, giving it to the Royal Army Education Corps until, in 1992, it was left to English Heritage.
- It opened to the public in 1995.
From the outside it seems like any other nationally-owned country house.
The only clue for what awaits is this modernist sculpture above the entrance;
1. The Art Deco Entrance Hall
Not strictly speaking a surprise (photos of this room were why Eltham Palace has been on my London to-do list!) but this room can’t fail to impress when you walk in…
Designed by Rolf Engströmer, the room which appears circular is actually a triangle. The whole atmosphere has that Art Deco cruise liner feel and you can almost hear the 1930s cocktail glasses clinking.
During the controversial renovations the exterior had to be kept relatively subdued, so it was with the interior that the Courtaulds could run wild.
And of course, don’t forget to look up! The ceiling is punctured with clear glass tiles to let in natural light.
2. This Decadent Bath
A perfect example of the luxurious taste of Ginie Courtauld, through her ‘Greek Temple’ style bedrooom (the circular yellow room pictured above) and past her walk-in wardrobe is this bathroom. It’s one of the many original interiors to survive from the 1930s.
3. The Lemur
Not to be content with dogs and cats, the Courtaulds had a flair for the exotic. In 1923 Stephen bought Mah-Jongg, a lemur from Harrods for his wife Virginia (Ginie).
Pride of place in the family portrait.
When he wasn’t roaming the house he had his own centrally-heated cage, complete with hand painted mural…
You get the sense that the Courtaulds were rather proud of their pet and you can spot Mah-Jongg hiding in decoration all over the house.
4. Tudor Survivors
The draw of Eltham Palace is the crazy mix of styles and no sooner have you walked through 1930s bedrooms, do you arrive in the Great Hall.
The original structure – including the magnificent hammerbeam oak roof – was built by Edward IV in 1479. It was dismantled and reassembled in 1911–14, with the hall itself being restored in the 1930s.
There are other glimpses of older details though, including this piece of 18th century stained glass showing Queen Elizabeth I.
It’s a convincing piece of Gothic restoration.
If you don’t look too closely…
5. Attention to Detail
The Courtaulds loved to travel and weren’t afraid to flaunt their experiences in their interiors.
The details show off their love of Venice and the influence of Japanese marquetry design.
As well as their taste for the exotic with animals drawn from life at London Zoo (can you spot Mah-Jongg again?!)
And, closer to home, Stephen’s bedroom has Kew Gardens-inspired wallpaper.
6. The Cafe and Gardens
As well as the house, if you still have the energy there are 19 acres of gardens to explore…
And is any English Heritage site worth visiting without a decent cafe?! This has to be amongst the loveliest ones I’ve seen, especially on a sunny day.
Find out more and plan your visit to Eltham Palace here.
Tickets are £14.40 for an adult (concessions £13) and £8.60 for ages 5-15, including a very good audio guide.