Description of Eltham Palace
The site is now dominated by the stylish house built in 1933–6 by the architects Seely and Paget for Stephen and Virginia Courtauld. They incorporated the great hall – the most substantial survival from the medieval royal palace – into the design. Like the house, the palace’s 19 acres of gardens feature both 20th-century and medieval elements.
The house is designed on a butterfly plan, with two wings, one of them linked to the medieval great hall. The house exterior was built in sympathy with the great hall using a red brick design with Clipsham stone dressings, inspired by Hampton Court Palace. Between the two wings is the curved, single-storey entrance colonnade, flanked by two pavilions. The exterior makes notable use of applied sculpture.
The Courtaulds’ house is now presented with a mixture of original and replica items of furniture and works of art. The interiors combine an eclectic mixture of styles.
The styles used range from ‘historical’ (such as the drawing room) to the new aesthetic of the 1930s, which rejected attempts to copy the past in favour of Modernism (as exemplified in the dining room). Typical features include wall surfaces lined with a range of native and exotic woods, the use of pale paint colours – a contrast to the strong colours favoured by the Edwardians – and ceilings designed as an integral part of the room. Furniture was designed with clean lines and an absence of applied decoration.
Perhaps the most dramatic interior is the entrance hall, created by the Swedish designer Rolf Engströmer. Its walls are lined with blackbean veneer and decorated with marquetry that includes figures of a Viking standing opposite a Roman soldier, set against background scenes from Italy and Scandinavia. Light floods in from the glass dome, highlighting the walnut and blackbean tables and chairs below.
The design of the Art Deco dining room, by the Italian designer Peter Malacrida, relies on contrasting tones and textures for effect, with bird’s-eye maple veneer walls and an aluminium-leaf ceiling. The distinctive black and silver doors depict animals and birds drawn from life at London Zoo.
The dining-room table and chairs are replicas, made in 1998 of the originals designed by Malacrida. The originals were rediscovered in 2001 at Pinewood Studios, and are now stored at Eltham.
The great hall was built for Edward IV in the 1470s for court dining, entertaining and receptions.
Its magnificent oak roof is an elaborate ‘false hammer-beam’ construction, with the short vertical posts morticed into the ends of the arch-braced horizontal hammer-beams. Curved wind-braces give strength to the roof trusses. There is evidence that the roof was once partly gilded: it also contained a louvre, ventilating an open hearth in the centre of the floor.
Intending the great hall to be used as a music room, the Courtaulds had a minstrels’ gallery added at one end. Much of the 1930s work represents Stephen Courtauld’s (and his architects’) concept of what a medieval great hall should look like.
Stained glass was added to the hall windows in 1936 by George Kruger Gray. The roundels depict the badges of Edward IV, and the glass in the bay windows depicts some of the great owners of the palace, from Bishop Odo to Edward IV and his queen, Elizabeth.
On the first floor, many of the bedrooms reflect the ‘Cunard style’ made popular by the fashionable cruise liners of the time, featuring built-in furniture and smooth veneered surfaces, often with curved ends. Perhaps the most exotic room is Virginia Courtauld’s vaulted Art Deco bathroom, lined with gold mosaic and onyx, complete with gold-plated bath taps and a statue of the goddess Psyche.
Several rooms on the first floor opened to visitors for the first time in April 2015. They include Virginia Courtauld’s recreated walk-in wardrobe, and bedrooms occupied by her nephews Peter and Paul Peirano, with a shared bathroom that had the only shower in the house.
Also restored and opened for the first time is a map room, where the family’s secretary planned their extensive worldwide travels. Conservators have recently uncovered (beneath later wallpaper) large maps pasted to the walls of areas to which the Courtaulds travelled. Vignettes were painted onto the walls around the maps, depicting scenes and characters from around the world.
The Courtauld gardens are laid out on two levels within the framework of the medieval buildings, walls and earthworks. Within the grounds, the principal remains of the medieval palace are the north bridge, moat walls and buttresses. Extensive footings of other excavated buildings, including the 15th-century and Tudor royal apartments in the palace’s west range, have been left exposed in some areas.
The Courtaulds built on the existing design and structure of mature trees and shrubs, but added ornamental plantations, shrubberies and specimen trees.
They also laid out new garden areas of different character, scale, proportion and detail, making the most of the site. They expanded the moat, formed a series of garden ‘rooms’ in the west moat, developed a large Rock Garden east of the moat, and incorporated smaller features such as the Quadrant Garden and Triangular Garden. The dry south moat is crossed by a timber bridge designed by the architects Seely and Paget, which rests on 16th-century brick piers.
To the east of the site beyond the moat were two tennis courts (now a play area) built by the Courtaulds. Beyond those, in the area now occupied by the car park, were the Courtaulds’ glasshouses, which included two orchid houses. A small secluded area further south, surrounded by yew hedges, once contained the Courtaulds’ swimming pool, infilled in 1967.
The 1930s planting was a mixture of informality, as in the Rock Garden, and formality, as on the west side in the Rose Garden, with its sunken pond, and in the garden rooms.
Much of this structure and some of the Courtauld-era planting survive. The gardens are displayed to a 1930s style that represents what the Courtaulds might have achieved had they remained longer at Eltham. Planting introduced by English Heritage includes a long herbaceous border at the foot of the south moat wall, replanted in 2000 and designed by Isabelle van Groeningen as part of the Contemporary Heritage Garden scheme.