London Museum Challenge #19: Eltham Palace

August 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

Eltham Palace

Eltham Palace

This is a story of two brothers, Samuel and Stephen.

Samuel, being the elder, was serious and high-minded. He went into the family business, amassed a peerless collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and drawings, and founded an institute for the study of art history and conservation where several generations of art historians (including yours truly) have trained.

Stephen, as younger brothers often are, was… less serious. He was a bit of a dilettante. He liked a good party. (Understatement of the year.) He collected art too, but the reason we remember him is that he sank most of his money into transforming a mostly-ruined medieval palace in darkest southeast London into an Art Deco fantasy.

I’m talking about Eltham Palace, of course, and given that my reaction to the words ‘Art Deco’ could probably be described as Pavlovian, why did it take me so long to get here? Well, I left it for last among the houses because I had some research to do first – namely, watch Bright Young Things, part of which was filmed there.*

(On the subject of Bright Young Things, I don’t know why it took me ten years to get round to watching a film that a. takes place in my favourite decades in terms of fashion and b. features my two favourite Scotsmen, James McAvoy and David Tennant (although, if you’ve not seen it, be warned that McAvoy – or rather, his character – comes to a bad end and that Tennant’s face is profaned by one of the most ridiculous moustaches ever to (dis)grace the screen). It is exactly the sort of film you’d expect Stephen Fry to do, and do well – an acid moral satire with a heart – and I can recommend it whether or not you intend to visit Eltham Palace.)

Eltham Palace exterior

I have to admit that, arriving with such high expectations, my heart plunged when I crossed the bridge over the moat and got my first glimpse of the palace. I can’t for the life of me remember who described the exterior as resembling a late 19th-century provincial English town hall, but it is a dispiritingly accurate description. However, once through the door, it was all sleek lines, deceptively simple panelling, chrome and silver and glass. The entrance hall is illuminated by a skylight of concentric circles of glass globes which has Art Deco’s hallmark old-fashioned futuristic look. There’s a silver cocktail set on one of the sideboards, a crystal box of cigarettes on the coffee table… all that’s missing is the whirl of men in white tie and tails and women in silk and jewels dancing to music coming from the gramophone…

Eltham Palace: dining room

Like a number of the houses I’ve visited this year, Eltham Palace is something of a work in progress. Stephen and Virginia Courtauld sold it in 1944 and for decades it served as an officers’ training school. English Heritage is slowly but surely seeking and recovering the scattered furniture and other decorative elements. (They’ve turned up in some fairly novel places – the dining room chairs were revealed to have been used as props for years at Pinewood Studios!) Even if some parts are irrecoverable, the place still exudes the glamour of the 1930s.

Eltham Palace garden 1

Eltham Palace garden 2

The garden is equally gorgeous – and a rare surviving example of 1930s garden design. The complexity of the design and plantings meant that by the time the Courtaulds left, it was unfinished, but I think this, combined with the fact that it incorporates remnants of the crumbling medieval palace (and that, on the day I visited, a lot of the flowers – especially the roses – were past their best), gives it a poignancy – a garden that knew it was part of an age of declining glory and a world about to disappear forever.

Eltham Palace garden 3

And I take back what I said in my last London Museum Challenge post. Here is one great house where the house is every bit as compelling as the garden.

Eltham Palace garden 4

Tally: 19 down, 4 to go

*The entrance hall is used as Espinosa’s restaurant in the film.


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