Eltham Palace

Seely and Paget at Eltham Palace

John Seely and Paul Paget ran one of the most noteworthy architectural firms of the interwar years. They met at university and became inseparable, going into business together in 1922. Their masterpiece was their transformation of Eltham Palace, a medieval palace on the outskirts of London, into an Art Deco mansion, completed in 1936.

Meeting as Students

(Henry) John Seely was the eldest surviving son of the 1st Baron Mottistone. Born in 1899, he read architecture at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he met Paul Edward Paget. The son of a bishop, Paget was an extrovert and entertainer. The pair became inseparable: in Paget’s words, ‘it was just the marriage of two minds … we became virtually one person’.

Professional Partnership  

Seely and Paget at work

Seely (left) draws up a set of plans while Paget (right) watches © Templewood Estate

The pair went into business in 1922. Paget had moved back to London to take up what he considered a dull profession in banking. Seely then announced to him that they were starting an architectural firm together.

Paget was not an architect, but made up for this with his charm and personality. He was the face of the company, securing business and cultivating good relationships with clients. Seely was the designer. As in their personal life, the two were inseparable in business – each referred to the other simply as ‘the partner’.

Their first domestic job was the restoration of Mottistone Manor on the Isle of Wight for Seely’s father, but they were soon more widely known. Both came from rich families and were well connected. In Paget’s words, ‘You were just introduced to the right people, behaved in the right way, and so commission followed commission’. Their early work included minor domestic alterations for the actress and theatre manager Gladys Cooper, and for the playwright JB Priestley.

Private Life  

The double bathroom at Seely and Paget's London home being cleaned by their houseman, Peter Foxwell

The double bathroom at Seely and Paget's London home being cleaned by their houseman, Peter Foxwell © Templewood Estate

Seely and Paget lived and worked together at 41 Cloth Fair in the City of London, where the firm remained until 1986. The business became so successful that Seely and Paget were able to buy the majority of the buildings on the street.

They installed two separate baths in the bathroom, where they would soak together. They blocked up the window in the house opposite that overlooked their kitchen and commissioned the church artist Brian Thomas to paint over it. The mural of a sailor returning home was ‘a delightful thing to look at’, according to Paget. This may have resonated strongly with the partners, both having lost older brothers in the First World War.

The Courtaulds

Portrait of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld with their pet lemur, Mah-Jongg

Portrait of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld with their pet lemur, Mah-Jongg, in 1934 © Bridgeman Art Library

Seely and Paget’s most important and ambitious project was Eltham Palace. Situated on the outskirts of London, Eltham was a medieval moated palace which had been the childhood home of Henry VIII, but had fallen into decline in the 18th century.

Eltham was transformed in the 1930s when Stephen and Virginia Courtauld took a 99-year lease on the palace from the Crown. The Courtaulds were extremely wealthy – Stephen was on the board of Ealing Film Studios, and both were heavily involved in the arts. They had been looking for a semi-rural property within easy reach of central London for a weekend getaway to entertain visitors. Eltham met their requirements perfectly.

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Design Controversy

The exterior of Eltham Palace

The curved entrance colonnade at Eltham Palace. Its infilled arches are inspired by the library at Trinity College, Cambridge

Paget’s cousin recommended the partners to the Courtaulds, who commissioned them to design a modern home that incorporated the medieval palace remains. Seely and Paget drew up plans for a new, modern house that adjoined and blended in with the medieval.

Their design caused some controversy, as there was much debate about the propriety of building onto an ancient monument. Although Seely and Paget worked with Sir Charles Peers, formerly Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, on the restoration of the palace’s great hall, a move designed to pacify the Ancient Monuments Board, their design was far from universally popular. The historian GM Young wrote a letter to The Times, complaining that:

In order to provide the tenant with a modern mansion, three distinguished architects united their talents and intelligence to destroy one of the most beautiful things remaining in the neighbourhood of London … the other day I found myself confronted with what at first I took to be an admirably designed but unfortunately sited cigarette factory.

Nevertheless, the design was eventually approved, and completed in 1936.

An Art Deco Masterpiece

The great hall at Eltham Palace

The great hall at Eltham Palace, built in the 1470s and restored by Seely and Paget in the 1930s

Eltham is now widely regarded as an Art Deco masterpiece. The exterior was inspired by Christopher Wren’s work at Hampton Court Palace and the library at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Inside the palace, Seely and Paget designed all 14 of the bedrooms and all but one of the bathrooms – Virginia had stipulated that the Mayfair designer Peter Malacrida should design her own bathroom. Paget later said, ‘We slightly resented that and thought we would have done something much better.’ Despite this, they built up a close relationship with the Courtaulds, picnicking with them in the grounds during the construction of the new house, and staying with them afterwards on several occasions.

Seely and Paget also made extensive alterations to the magnificent great hall, built during the reign of Edward IV, designed to make it look as ‘medieval’ as possible. They created a minstrels’ gallery at the east end of the hall, providing a superb view over the room, and added a timber screen at the other end.

Later Life

Church of St Andrew and St George

The church of St Andrew and St George in Stevenage, soon after its completion in 1960 © Historic England

The damage caused to London and the surrounding area by bombing during the Second World War created multiple opportunities for Seely and Paget. They worked on a variety of secular and church buildings, including designing the church of St Andrew and St George in Stevenage, Hertfordshire – the largest parish church built in England after 1945. They were also responsible for restoring the Westminster Abbey precinct and parts of Eton College, Berkshire. Further prestige came in 1947 when Seely was appointed surveyor to the fabric of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Seely died in 1963 and was buried in St Catherine’s chapel garden at Westminster Abbey. Paget succeeded Seely as surveyor to St Paul’s, but without his partner and with no architectural training, he felt unable to continue alone. In 1971, he married the writer Verily Anderson, best known for her historical biographies of influential families. He retired with her and her children to Templewood in north Norfolk, a Palladian villa the partners had built for Paget’s uncle. He lived there until his death in 1985.

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