A friend once told me about a country house, just outside London, which was the childhood home of Henry VIII but had also been transformed into an Art Deco masterpiece in the early twentieth century. I found this really hard to visualise – it’s such a clash of different styles! Recently I was fortunate enough to visit, and was amazed by the 1930s decadence that most certainly doesn’t clash with an almost thousand-year history – it blends beautifully.
The first manor house was built at Eltham in 1296 by the Bishop of Durham – upon his death, Edward II acquired the palace in 1311. This began its ownership and remodelling as a royal palace. It eventually fell into disrepair and then, in 1933, the palace was leased by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld (yes – there is a connection to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, which was founded by Stephen’s brother Samuel), who started construction on their own modern home that connected to the Great Hall. This is where it gets really exciting, and the unique property you can visit today begun to take shape!
Stephen and Virginia, or Ginie, as she was known, sounded like the most fascinating and fun people. Stephen was a lot more introverted than his wife, who was the life and soul of the party. My favourite thing about the couple was that they kept a pet lemur at Eltham called Mah-Jongg, who can be seen in footage playing with their other pets, and whose beautifully painted cage takes a central stage in the house. It made me desperately want an exotic pet…
The 1930s house is absolutely stunning. It evokes Swedish design, and encompasses art and contemporary style and technology. For instance, the Courtaulds installed underfloor heating, even in the large Great Hall, which was where they hosted their legendary parties – including the 21st birthday party of one of Ginie’s nephews. Though childless, the couple were exceptionally close to their family and had friends to stay constantly. You can see a tray set up to make cocktails in the entrance hall – apparently, this was Stephen’s star turn when they had guests!
And of course, being part of the Courtauld family, fine and decorative art took centre stage in Stephen and Ginie’s home. There is a beautiful portrait of the two of them (with Mah-Jongg!) by Leonard Campbell-Taylor, executed in 1934, on the wall upstairs. It shows them in the music room of their central London home in Grosvenor Square. Also, don’t miss the paintings by J. M. W. Turner in the library and the 1930 mural of St Cecilia (the patron saint of music) by Mary Adshead downstairs – it’s quite a surprise when you walk through the basement rooms to the room dressed for billiards and find this, it’s so vibrant!
Also, I have to point out the beautiful bathroom in Ginie’s bedroom – already stunning and set to a curved design, incorporating a walk in wardrobe, it features a huge gold mosaic and classical influences. It all feels very glamorous!
Just before the end of the Second World War, Stephen and Ginie left Eltham for Scotland, and then in the 1950s, moved to what is now Zimbabwe, where they established an estate called La Rochelle. After they left Eltham, it became the base of the Royal Army Educational Corps. English Heritage had responsibility for the medieval Great Hall from 1984, and eleven years later, took over the entire property. It truly is a unique place to visit and definitely not one to miss!
And to finish? The garden is also truly beautiful. It many different styles on different levels, with the Rock Garden making for an interesting landscape. It’s definitely worth a walk round the nineteen acres available, before you take a wander up to the café, where I can definitely recommend the cakes…
Eltham is also really easy to get to from central London. Mottingham is the closest train station to Eltham, and it’s a really easy 10-15 minute walk from here – you can get trains out to Mottingham from Charing Cross and Cannon Street.
FIND OUT MORE…
- If you want to know more about the history of Eltham, and the sources for discovering its history, English Heritage (who manage the property) have provided a great list for reference, find it here