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Old meets new
Eltham Palace (Eltham)
Member Name: caro
Eltham Palace (Eltham)
Date: 15/12/00, updated on 19/02/01 (175 review reads)
Advantages: Fascinating variety of periods and styles
Disadvantages: Limited number of audio guides!
In the Middle Ages, from the 14th Century, Eltham was a royal palace. The Courtaulds bought the Palace in the 1930s, and somewhat controversially set about building their dream home. They kept what remained of the original palace – basically the great hall with its fabulous hammerbeam roof, to which they did add some faux mediaeval touches of their own. These include stained glass and a decidedly inauthentic minstrel’s gallery. However, with its relatively sparse, heavy, wooden furnishings the great hall retains its atmosphere and dignity despite these alterations.
The attached new house built by the couple made no concessions to the site’s history: it combined Art Deco, ocean liner design, and the latest technology. Nonetheless, the overall effect is reasonably harmonious: neither building looks out of place next to the other.
The entrance hall has a circular carpet mirroring the glassy dome in the ceiling, with marquetry panelling on the walls. There are ‘portholes’ in the stair walls, an effect mirrored in the built-in furnishings elsewhere. Ladies’ and men’s cloakrooms at the entrance are a reminder that the house was used a great deal for entertaining.
Perhaps the most memorable room is Mrs Courtauld’s bathroom. Although small, it is stunning. Behind the bath is an alcove lined with gold mosaic tiles, housing a Classical statuette: this achieves the desired effect of a temple to Venus. The en suite bathrooms are part of the modern amenities found throughout the house. Others include a central vacuum cleaning system and a speaker system playing music throughout the ground floor from one
source (revolutionary at that time).
However, Mr Courtauld’s love of technology did not extend to the telephone. Guests were expected to use a pay phone just off the hall, not only because of the expense of telephone calls but also because he personally disliked the instrument: most in the house are internal only. This kind of personal feature emphasises just how much the house was created to the design of two individuals, rather than simply a fashionable showpiece.
Another such feature is the home of the couple’s pet ring-tailed lemur. This was being renovated when I visited, but somebody with a sense of humour had placed a cuddly version of the animal disappearing down its ladder! The ladder allowed the lemur to move from its own quarters to the ground floor. So beloved was this pet that a memorial was built to him when he died, in striped stone to reflect his tail (that memorial is now at another of the couple’s homes).
I visited on a sunny Sunday, and the house was extremely busy. There is an audio tour available but no equipment was left when I arrived. The tea room provided good light lunches and cream teas, but was hectically busy too. However, the house itself was not overcrowded: I felt able to wander at leisure and properly appreciate each room.
While bringing the crowds, the sunny weather did also mean that I could fully enjoy the gardens. These are well worth walking around, combining relatively formal water features, a large rock garden at the side of the river, a mediaeval bridge and a host of other pleasing features. Get the map when you arrive at the Palace, and make the most of exploring!
There is also a shop, with the usual range of English Heritage products. The guidebook is well worth buying. It’s copiously illustrated, and as well as the tour of the house it offers further information on the history of the Palace, the designers involved, et cetera.
I would definitely recommend taking the train out of London to Eltham Palace. It has a huge amount to offer, whether your interest is mediaeval or modern architecture, or gardens. Worth a visit!