Saturday, May 12, 2018

London 2018: Eltham Palace, Art Deco Fair

When Rich and I were researching places to visit as part of our “Off the Beaten Path” tour of London, we looked for obscure but interesting sites that were still within easy transit access, but might not make the list that the typical tourist would visit.  Rich hit the jackpot when he discovered Eltham Palace, a magical destination so little known that even some locals we spoke to had never heard of it.  It was so far from Central London that we had to take the Tube followed by a Rail service to get there.  Luckily the transit systems in London are so well integrated that this was not much different than transferring tube stations, except that we had to pay a separate fare for the Rail service in addition to the Tube service.  So the one-way trip cost us each 4.9 pounds as opposed to the usual 2.4 pounds required to get to Central London.

Located in the Greenwich district in South-East London, Eltham Palace was originally built as a Medieval palace that featured a Great (Banquet) Hall, many gardens and a moat that surrounded the property.  Eltham was used as a royal residence between the 14th-16th centuries by a series of monarchs including Edward II, Edward VI and Henry VIII before it fell out of favour and languished in disrepair for several centuries.  In the 17th and 18th Centuries, the property was used as a farm and the Great Hall was converted into a barn.  A movement to save and restore the Great Hall took place through the 19th Century.  Today you can still see ruins from the original castle, but the Great Hall, as well as a small part of the moat and the 15th Century stone bridge crossing it, are the main features that remain from the Tudor heyday.

In 1933, textile millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld leased the estate and built a new house on the property, which incorporated the Great Hall of the original palace.  While the exterior of the house was designed to complement the Great Hall, using red brick and yellow stone patterns inspired by Hampton Court Palace, the Courtaulds decorated the interior in the Moderne style (which later became known as Art Deco) that was in vogue in the 1930s.  The result is an interesting juxtaposition of Medieval and 20th Century styles that is also reflected in the designs of the 19 acres of gardens.  Walking around the grounds of the palace, you would not suspect the surprise that is in store for you when you step inside. The Courtaulds moved out in 1944, passing the lease to the Royal Army Educational Corps, who stayed until 1992.  The foundation English Heritage took over in 1995 and spent years restoring the property, its interiors and the grounds/gardens to reflect the period of the Courtaulds’ stay, including creating reproductions or replicas of the furniture and artwork.

We purposely timed our visit to correspond with the annual Art Deco Fair, which takes place on the grounds of Eltham Palace for two days in May. This was advertised as a large sale of vintage Art Deco-period items, and we were hoping to find a small affordable piece to bring home as a souvenir.  We arrived right at opening time and decided to wander through the fair first before it got too crowded, and then take the tour of the Palace.  Half of the stalls for the fair were set up in the 100-feet-long Great Hall, which was built in the 1470s for King Edward IV, who used it for hosting court dinners, receptions and other forms of entertaining.  It features an elaborate oak hammer-bean roof, the third largest in England.  When the Courtaulds restored the Great Hall in the 1930s, they added stained glass windows depicting the badges of Edward IV, electric torches, heated flooring and a minstrel’s gallery overlooking the hall, where musicians could play during dances and parties held in the room.  Today, the Great Hall is rented out for weddings, receptions and special events like the Art Deco Fair.

The second half of the fair occupied a large white tent that was temporarily set up on the grounds next to the Great Hall.  We were really impressed by the variety and quality of items on sale.  There was jewelry, clothing, furniture, art, books, sculptures, ceramics, glass, cookware, clocks, lamps and much more.  In addition, there was a smaller tent offering snacks for sale and a table where you could buy a cup of strawberry wine infused with fresh strawberries and cucumber.  On a relatively hot day, this sounded like just the ticket and we were able to enjoy our drink while sitting on one of the wicker benches set out on the beautiful Eltham Palace grounds.  I had never tried strawberry wine before and rather enjoyed it, since it tasted more like fruit punch than wine.

As Rich and I browsed through the stalls looking at the items on sale, we each saw some pieces that we liked, but which did not interest the other one of us as much.  Rich was drawn to a stainless steel cocktail shaker with a bright red handle that looked like a coffee pot and a swanky clock with a stepped form and geometric lines and patterns.  I have always wanted an Art Deco sculpture but most of the ones I saw were too big or too expensive.  I finally spotted one that might have fit my criteria, but before I could ask about it, another couple swooped in and bought it on the spot.  This was just as well, since I wasn’t sure it would have been Rich’s cup of tea anyways.

Then I found something that we got excited about.  It was a beautiful eight piece gilded coffee set decorated with in green, blue and beige geometric shapes and lines, with a pearly lustre sheen on the inside of the cups, creamer and sugar bowl.  The set was created by Crown Devon Fieldings circa 1930s.  Negotiating with the vendor, we were able to agree on a reduced price if we could pay cash, which we luckily brought enough of, in hopes of making a purchase.  We were just about to leave the sale when Rich caught sight of something else in another stall that he fell instantly in love with.  It was an Art Nouveau-styled vase circa 1920, elegantly decorated with leaves and flowers, that was designed and signed by R.Dean who produced worked for Thomas Forester.  Debating for a bit about whether it was extravagant for us to make two purchases, we decided that if the vendor would lower his asking price to match the money that we had left, we would buy it.  If not, it would not be meant to be.  The antique dealer gave us his best price and we stepped aside to count our remaining cash.  We found that we were short by 2 pounds and would have had enough if we hadn’t bought the strawberry wine drink!  Holding all the money we had left in my hands, I approached the vendor and asked if that would be good enough.  Luckily he accepted so we are the happy owners of both these items.  We still had to worry about how we would get all these fragile pieces home unscathed in our carry-on bags, but we would figure that out later.  Now with literally no more money in our wallets, (luckily we had pre-paid Oyster cards for the transit home), we quickly took our leave of the fair and proceeded to tour the palace with the Medieval exterior and Art Deco interior.

The most stunning and dramatic room in Eltham Palace is the Grand Entrance, created by Swedish designer Rolf Engströmer.  This is where the Courtaulds would welcome their guests and serve them cocktails. The walls of this magnificent room are made from blackbean veneer (an Australian wood), decorated with marquetry featuring figures of a Viking and a Roman soldier guarding either side of the entrance.  These figures are set against background scenes from Venice, Florence and Stockholm, favourite cities that the Courtaulds visited in their travels.  A round, glass-domed light feature studded with glass bricks sits directly above a circular geometrically-patterned rug around which streamlined, unadorned furniture including couches, arm chairs, and tables are positioned.  The overall effect is absolutely breathtaking.  Around the room are exits leading to other parts of the ground floor including the dining room, as well as two sets of stairs accessing the first floor.

The Dining Room is another highlight in the house, displaying a mixture of modern design and classical features. It is designed by the Italian Peter Malacrida, who also created the look and feel for many other rooms in the house. Art Deco inspired Greek motif is evident throughout the room, including gilded spiral Greek key patterns embossed on the doors and fireplace, as well as the edges of the side tables.  The massive black laquered doors are also decorated with gilded images of animals and birds that could be found in the London Zoo.  The furniture was designed with clean lines and an absence of applied decoration.  This includes the long, sleek walnut and maple dining table that can seat up to 14 people and the matching dining chairs covered with pink leather upholstery.  The central ceiling recess is covered with aluminum leaf with concealed lighting underneath that creates a metallic shimmering effect.

The Courtaulds incorporated modern technology (for the times) in Eltham Palace including the use of electricity throughout the house, an electric fireplace in the dining room with imitation burning logs, an internal telephone systems, central vacuum system in the basement, synchronized electric clocks, and a loudspeaker system.

Several other rooms were found on the ground floor.  Unlike the previous Art Deco-styled rooms, the Italian Drawing Room (also designed by Peter Malacrida) is decorated in Italian Renaissance style with its orange and ochre walls, classical marble mantle for the fireplace, decorative ceiling beams, Persian rugs, wall panels carved with reliefs of goddesses with fauns, ornate metal grill work on the doorways leading to the terrace, and small lighted recesses for displaying art work and ceramics.  This is the room was where the Courtaulds and their guests would relax after dinner and where  Stephen Courtauld’s collection of Italian Renaissance paintings and ceramics was kept. While all of the original art works have been taken away long ago, several reproductions of paintings hang on the walls while built-in shelves hold replica ceramic plates.  This room, along with the Dining Room and Grand Entrance can be rented out for cocktail parties and receptions.  The Boudoir was designed specifically for Virginia Courtauld and features an early example of built-in furniture.  A wide 3-seater sofa is nestled into a wooden built-in unit consisting of multi-tiered end tables on either side and a long wooden bookcase spanning the length of the couch and both end tables.  On the other side of the room, a protruded wall with the fireplace built into it is covered by a large leather map depicting Eltham Palace and the surrounding estate.  The wall also features a camouflaged door leading to Stephen’s library.
Accessed from the Boudoir is a small room that the Courtaulds called the “Map Room” where the couple drew maps of the Middle East, Europe and South America in order to plan their holidays.  The maps were recently discovered behind some peeling wallpaper and conservators contracted by English Heritage have been working carefully to restore and preserve the maps.  In the process of uncovering the maps, the conservators noticed some decorative images drawn beside the maps, probably painted by Virginia either in anticipation of or to capture memories of their travels.  The conservation work continues and it will be very exciting once it is all done. 

Taking one of the staircases up to the first floor where the bedrooms are located, we were directed into an ornate room where we would watch a five minute introductory video about Eltham Palace and the Courtaulds.  Formerly the bedroom of the “Venetian Suite”, the room is covered with elaborate 18th Century gilded paneling with a fake bookshelf and books painted onto some of the panels including a camouflaged door.  By contrast, the en suite bathroom of this classically decorated room is instead decorated in 1930s style including green checkered Vitrolite tiles, a porcelain bathtub and even a bidet.

More examples of built-in furniture can be found in the master bedrooms of the Courtaulds.  Virginia’s bedroom is set in a round space that is said to be inspired by a classical circular temple, with curving sliding doors that lead into the hallway and the en suite bathroom.  The bed is attached to a unit consisting of two protruding columns or pilasters, decorated with inlay designs and sconces, with small night stands attached to each pilaster and a narrow ledge spanning the back of the bed. On the other side of the rounded space are two arm chairs and an electric fireplace with a marble mantle.  One of the most magnificent rooms in the palace is Virginia’s exotic, oppulent Art Deco ensuite bathroom, one of the original interiors to survive from the 1930s.  The recess wall overlooking the bathtub is lined with oynx and gold mosaic tiles, while the marble tub has gold-plated taps, a lion head for a spout, and a ledge containing the statue of the goddess Psyche.

Virginia (nicknamed Ginie) installed a giant walk-in closet to house her large collection of clothing, shoes, jewelry, purses, hats, gloves and other accessories.  The interiors of the closets were lined with cedar to keep moths away.  Samples (reproductions?) of Ginie’s wardrobe were made available for tourists to try on.  I could have spent all day modeling the beautiful attire if Rich would have allowed me and if other people were not waiting for their turn.  As it was, Rich indulged me while I put together a couple of ensembles, although I couldn’t fit into the dainty shoes and the running shoes that I was wearing rather ruined the overall look.  Still, it was fun!

Stephen’s Bedroom is much more reserved and masculine than Virginia’s with wood paneling being the dominant feature of three of the four walls.  The fourth wall was covered with specially designed wallpaper depicting scenes from Kew Gardens, a botanical garden in southwest London that houses one of the largest and most diverse botanical collections in the world.  The design is a reflection of Stephen’s love for gardening.  A hidden door, blended into the wallpaper, leads to Virginia’s bedroom.  Stephen’s bedroom also features a walk-in closet, built-in side tables and a what looks like a built-in trophy case that incorporates a small fireplace.  His bathroom, while less ostentatious than his wife’s, is still quite beautiful with its blue tiles on the walls and green tiles on the floor.

One of the most unusual aspects of the house are the rooms devoted to the Courtauld’s beloved pet Mah-Jongg, a ring-tailed lemur that Stephen bought at Harrods Pet Department for Ginie as a wedding present in 1923.  They even featured their pet in their official portrait that is hanging in the Principal Landing of Eltham Palace.  Mah-Jongg lived a life of luxury with his own heated sleeping quarters that had walls painted with scenes of a Madagascan Forest, presumably the lemur’s native habitat, a bamboo ladder leading down to the flower room, and his own deck chair.  The Courtauld’s let Mah-Jongg run loose and he was known to bite the dinner guests.  Mah-Jongg’s image is represented in various places within the place including a fresco in the basement and a carving in the Great Hall.

After touring the gorgeous interiors of Eltham Palace, we set out to explore the grounds.  We had to hurry because the skies were darkening and rain was coming.  From the terrace, we looked back at the pretty façade of the house, and admired the ring of purple wisteria cascading over the classical pergola.  Looking across the moat, we saw the beautiful rock garden that remains as it was from the 1930s when the Courtaulds designed it.

We descended the stone steps of the terrace and walked to the end of the moat so that we could cross to the other side and look back to get a better view of the entire estate.  Eltham Palace has been used to film many movies and TV shows including Bright Young Things, Brideshead Revisited, and Antiques Roadshow.  Continuing along the grounds, we saw some remaining ruins of the old Medieval walls.

Circling the grounds of Eltham Palace, we came across the rose garden with the sunken pond as well as a few other formal “garden rooms” that the Courtaulds designed, building on the existing design and structure of mature trees and shrubs, but added ornamental plantations, shrubberies and specimen trees.  As part of the restoration of Eltham Palace, English Heritage has tried to maintain and promote the garden designs originally created in the 1930s.  While no longer in existence, during the Courtaulds’ stay at Eltham Palace, there used to be a swimming pool and tennis courts on the property.

Just as we made our way completely around the perimeter of the property, the skies opened and it started to pour so we decided it was time to head home.  We were pleased with our well-timed excursion to Eltham Palace and our purchases from the Art Deco Fair.  We had seen so much in the house that it never occurred to us that there might have been more that we missed.  But as I was doing a bit of additional research to write this blog, I realized that we had walked past stairs leading to the basement where there was a Billiards Room and a play area that used to be the Courtaulds’ former luxury Wartime Bunker.  I found an online floor plan of the palace that clearly showed the basement rooms as well as the stairway access to them.  We were actually standing right next to the spot but did not see the stairs.  I found some photos online detailing what we had missed, including the fresco depicting Mah-Jongg in the Billiards Room and what has been described as one of the must luxurious privately owned war bunkers in London.  Apparently there was a larder, a stocked bar, sound system and beds for extended stays.  The bunker was both bomb-proof and gas-proof.  There was supposed to be a free audio guide to accompany you through the tour of Eltham Palace, but we were not offered one, possibly because everyone was busy with the fair.  So it was too bad that we did not get to see all the rooms of the Palace, but this was such an amazing and unexpected experience that it quickly became the highlight of our London Off the Beaten Path tour and remained our favourite day, even upon reflection at the end of our three week tri.

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