Houzz Tour: A Medieval Palace Gets an Art Deco Update
Eltham Palace is hailed as an architectural masterpiece, but the 1930s modernisation of this historic home was a controversial one
In 1933, Stephen and Virginia Courtauld took over the lease and hired an international design team to give the place a radical Art Deco renovation, complete with a large extension, and – then – cutting-edge technology, including a centralised vacuum cleaner, built-in speakers, central heating, an electric fridge and a private telephone exchange. This dramatic makeover caused quite a stir at the time…
Who lived here Millionaire socialites Stephen and Virginia Courtauld (between 1933 and 1944) and their pet ring-tailed lemur, Mah-Jongg
Location Eltham, southeast London
Property A Grade II listed former Royal residence with parts dating back to 1470
Size 9 family and guest bedrooms, 8 family and guest bathrooms; 9 servants’ bedrooms, 2 servants’ bathrooms
Designers Architects: Seely and Paget; interior designer: the marchese Peter Malacrida
That’s interesting The Courtaulds’ lemur had his own tiny bedroom, complete with underfloor heating
When Stephen and Virginia Courtauld took over Eltham Palace, it had long fallen into disrepair. The Great Hall, built in 1470 by Edward IV, was one of the few original parts of the building still standing, alongside the moat and its bridge.
And yet the Courtaulds’ renovation was scorned by those who believed their design put the historical integrity of the building at risk. To add to the dissenters’ concerns, the Courtaulds’ chosen architects were barely out of university, and their interior designer was an eccentric Italian aristocrat and, some say, a playboy.
Tour the gardens at Eltham Palace
The entrance hall, a triangular room with curved walls, is where celebrity guests, from British film star Gracie Fields to composer Igor Stravinsky to Queen Mary, would have been welcomed by their hosts.
The striking, hand-knotted rug is a replica of the original, which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum and was designed by renowned textile designer of the era Marion Dorn. The curved walnut chairs and sofas are fitted with practical loose covers, perfect for a party-loving household.
Discover more about Art Deco style
The room also features maple veneered walls and an aluminium leaf ceiling panel, surrounded by concealed lighting to make it shimmer after dark. A 10-seater dining table takes centre-stage and is teamed with pink leather-clad chairs, which Virginia chose because she thought they’d best show off the dresses of female guests.
The glass in the windows isn’t original, however – Stephen had it added in 1936; the design depicts Edward IV’s badges.
The oak-beamed ceiling is an example of the third largest timber hammer-beam roof construction in the country (the one at Westminster Hall, in the Houses of Parliament, is the biggest).
Hammer beams, common in large churches and cathedrals, are short horizontal and vertical beams fixed to the walls in order to support the roof.
This room was Stephen’s and features American aspen wood walls and furniture, including a modern, built-in chest of drawers and a cutting-edge electric fire. The decorative wall is covered in paper depicting Kew Gardens, to reflect Stephen’s interest in horticulture.
Get ideas for creating a modern-day Art Deco bathing space
Give Art Deco a contemporary twist in your bedroom
Image: © Historic England Bridgeman Images
Entry to Eltham Palace is free to English Heritage members, or £13 for adults, £7.80 for children. It is open to the public Mondays to Fridays, 10-6pm.
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