Eltham Palace Is Really an Art Deco Dream Palace

It may not look like it from the outside, but Eltham Palace is an Art Deco fan's dream.

It may not look like it from the outside, but Eltham Palace is an Art Deco fan’s dream.

The 1930s are remembered by many people as a time of poverty and high unemployment. The economic difficulties of that era are well recorded, and for the masses, life was tough. But escape, of a sort, came through the movies.

Here—in contrast with the Great Depression that dominated people’s lives—was glamour and sophistication. Elegant people lived lives in stunning interiors, decorated in the very latest style of Art Deco. The movies were, of course, not real. But the lucky few did live their lives in homes that resembled that of Nick and Nora Charles and others of the era who could afford it.

Now the public can now see for themselves how the other half lived in the 1930s.

A portrait of millionaire Stephen Courtauld and his wife Virginia, along with Mah-Jongg, their ring-tailed lemur.

A portrait of millionaire Stephen Courtauld and his wife Virginia, along with Mah-Jongg, their ring-tailed lemur.

Ancient and Modern

Eltham Palace in London may be distantly familiar as the boyhood home of Henry VIII, but it is for a much different reason that it is now being celebrated. In 1936, millionaire Stephen Courtauld and his wife Virginia built a remarkable Deco dream palace adjoining the building. It is now open to the public after a major renovation project by English Heritage. Steven Courtauld was the brother of Samuel Courtauld, the textile magnate and founder of the Courtauld Institute of Art. After service in the First World War, he devoted his time to art—forming a collection of watercolors by Joseph Mallord William Turner—and to his gardens, becoming an expert on orchids. If his home does resemble a film set, that seems appropriate given his connections with Ealing Studios. He was a director of the studios, and bankrolled the early British film industry.

The Courtaulds discovered Eltham when they were looking for somewhere close to London’s theatres and concert halls, but where they could also entertain and create a spectacular garden. It was in the gardens where they held some memorable parties. Surviving home movies illustrate the pleasures of life at the house, playing tennis, swimming and socializing within the splendid landscaped gardens. Those lucky enough to be invited inside were in for a treat. The Courtaulds were responsible for the renovation of the medieval Great Hall—a project of which they were immensely proud. But the house itself was the epitome of Deco, and a showcase for the latest design talents and the latest materials. Innovative ideas introduced into the home included elements of the contemporary Ocean liner style, as well as details derived from the sets of Hollywood. These included concealed lighting, electric clocks and a loudspeaker system. Each of the 11 bedrooms had built-in furniture and an en-suite bathroom. An exotic touch was provided by the presence of Mah-Jongg, a ring-tailed lemur, who lived in a mural-decorated cage room on the first floor, connected to the ground floor by a bamboo ladder.

The dining room, designed by Marchese Peter Malacrida.

The dining room, designed by Marchese Peter Malacrida.

Dining in style

Dining at the house was quite an event. Popular Italian society interior designer the Marchese Peter Malacrida created the black and silver dining room, in the sophisticated Modern style. The maple chairs have pink leather seats, and the room has black marble-edged floors and a silver ceiling with concealed lighting. The black doors are decorated with applied silver animals copied from life drawings made at London Zoo. Malacrida also designed the palazzo-style drawing room and fitted Virginia’s onyx bathroom with gold mosaic tiles and gold-plated taps. The adjoining oval bedroom has veneered walls. Swedish expertise in the form of designer Rolf Engstromer was enlisted for the entrance hall. It is lined with an Australian blackbean veneer with an inlaid parquetry panel depicting Scandinavian and Italian scenes. Furnishings include a distinctive circular carpet, 19 feet in diameter, by Marion Dorn, one of the leading designers of the inter-war years. Furniture has the classic deco look, in walnut with cream upholstery.

The Courtaulds moved away from Eltham in 1945, and the house became the headquarters of the Royal Army Educational Corps. In October 1995, English Heritage took over the building, and in 1997, began a £2-million refurbishment. It is regarded as one of the most perfect Art Deco interiors in England, and many original features survived in excellent condition. These include the original paneling and ornate decorative features, including Virginia’s bathroom and the domed entrance hall. Sadly, many of the furnishings have been lost, and have had to be re-created.

Virginia Courtauld’s onyx bathroom with gold mosaic tiles and gold-plated taps.

Virginia Courtauld’s onyx bathroom with gold mosaic tiles and gold-plated taps.

“This is not a conventional restoration,” explained Treve Rosoman, one of English Hentage’s curators, as the work progressed. “Our approach is not to treat the house as a traditional museum, as most of the original furnishings and paintings have disappeared and because we wish to use the house for conferences and private receptions. We are copying from extremely detailed records and photographs, the paintings, furnishings, original Art Deco furniture, and objects that made the house the epitome of style. We hope to bring back some original furniture and paintings but mostly we will be commissioning completely new work which matches the originals from modem craftsmen.”

In particular, English Heritage has been working closely with leading design house Mulberry, which has provided textiles to match those recorded in photographs of the original curtains, coverings for chairs and sofas, bedspreads and other soft furnishings. Furniture designer Neil Stevenson was commissioned to reproduce key items of furniture, including the black and silver dining room table and chairs and the Art Deco walnut writing desk, which was the main feature of the library. The distinctive circular Marion Dorn carpet survives, but it is currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum collections. It has been reproduced by Donegal Carpets in Ireland, with the assistance of expertise from English Heritage.

The den with built-in furniture.

The den with built-in furniture.

Deco Dream

The Courtaulds’ deco dream home is now open to the public. It is not only an important restoration project in itself, but has achieved a number of “firsts.” It is, for example, the first time an English Heritage project has been aimed at achieving a “look,” and it is the first time the organization has worked on a collaborative venture of this kind.

Some might argue that resources would be best concentrated on preserving the originals rather than on using copies to fill the gaps. But Deco was always about achieving a “look.” This is why cheaper versions of just about everything were made, so that something of the style could be achieved even on a limited budget. Style was everything, and stylish is definitely the word for the interiors seen here. They are authentic, and their use for commercial purposes will provide much needed funds for the future. As Treve Rosoman said, this is no conventional restoration. Could it provide the inspiration for future projects, I wonder?

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