Eltham Palace (Kent): so this is where Henry VIII grew up

The 1930s extension

In the suburbs of London lies a lost royal palace, dating back to 1300, where Henry VIII spent much of his childhood.

An architecture aficionado’s day out: the average day-tripper may find the £9.20 entrance fee for a 1930’s house, empty barn and token tea room a little steep.

I however loved its unique offerings: medieval rustic meets 1930s chic.

Reason to visit: to view a (recreated) 1930s country house chic combined with inspirational reconstructions of art deco furniture design.

I imagine everyone has heard of Henry’s VIII palaces of Hampton Court, fewer of Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, Whitehall Palace and Beaulieu in Essex.  However, Eltham is where Henry grew up and may just in part have inspired him in his future building pursuits.

Even more inspirational was to find annexed to the 15th century hall a gilded, scented and hospitable 1930s architectural statement, even if the overall structural form of the current building is more part shopping village/part stranded ocean liner, less country estate: the combination of sunken gardens, moat, ruins and stretched L-shaped collection of buildings renders it impossible to take a picture of Eltham Palace from any one angle, leaving an aerial view the only option.

Eltham Palace began life as a moated manor house set in extensive parkland.  By 1305 it had become a royal building – St John’s Palace – and in the 1470s Edward IV built the  Great Hall, which has been restored in situ at Eltham: as court life moved to Greenwich most of the buildings failed to survive (having been replaced by a farm and then a Victorian villa) but the hall clung on, albeit in a state of disrepair and as a barn for the most part (captured by Turner in the 1790s).

It took public works to save the Hall from dereliction and when Stephen and Virginia Courtauld sought a site for a country retreat, they were able to obtain planning permission to build a house adjoining it, given that they would at the same time become responsible for completing and preserving the Hall.  The Courtaulds however could be said to have restored the Hall with a touch of artistic Hollywood licence (e.g. they put in a minstrels gallery and added a screen at the far end into which was carved their initials). They didn’t have to comply with the same restraints they would have had to today under English Heritage’s watch.

In fact, the Courtaulds only lived here for about a decade.

The house is now Grade II listed, having been restored since 1999 by English Heritage (it was used by Army education units until 1992, the Courtaulds having emigrated to Rhodesia in 1944, famous art collection and all (now largely regrouped in the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House)).

As a result of the military use, many of the original interiors had not survived: much of the furniture, fittings and even wood panelling is new, albeit the recreations are faithful and where possible based on original inventories and Country Life photos.  In addition, most of the furniture the Courtaulds bought for the Great Hall remains.

So what do you get on this day out from a grand pile set midst full-on London suburbia?

Over the bridge (across the moat full of carp and moorhens), around the corner to the turning circle, one finds the entrance, above which is the symbol of hospitality.  Enter the party pad consisting of:

  • an impressive circular hall with circular rug, curved seating (white with black piping) and domed glass down lighter, creating an extremely light hall with more than a hint of Swedish influence;
  • a darker sitting room for the display of medieval arts;
  • the star of the house, the dining room, with pale wood furniture, soft salmon pink leather seats (the originals, thought lost, were discovered in Hollywood but many shades darker due to polishes added – the original table and some chairs are on display upstairs and have seen better days), aluminium leaf ceiling and gilded animal designs with greek key designs on the doors;
  • a study, with Stephen Courtauld-designed wall shutters for protecting his collection of Turner watercolours from daylight;
  • a day room with examples of early built-in furniture;
  • a centralised vacuum system accessed from points in the skirting;
  • unnecessarily wide hallways adding a sense of luxury;
  • a lemur cage (for the Courtauld’s pet lemur);
  • an orangery; and
  • a double sweeping staircase reminiscent of an ocean liner.

My postcards

Upstairs is a much plainer world, except for the Venetian room (where Virginia’s Italian mother stayed), Virginia’s own bedroom (complete with gilded bathroom) and Stephen’s bedroom (with wallpaper depicting Kew Gardens – at one point the rolls were switched so the paper now hangs on the opposite wall to where it was originally placed).  There were no Country Life photos of much of upstairs and so EH had to do their best to recreate what they think would have been there.

The servants quarters are not open and the kitchens have been converted into a shop, café and offices.

From a practical point of view (I cycled there), there’s space to leave larger bags but no cycle racks and the staff were unusually (for English Heritage) young and helpful.  There’s also a free audio guide, which makes the experience much more enjoyable: this may explain why there are no guides/room stewards in any of the rooms throughout the house.

The gardens are sunken and pleasing: a 1930s mixture of shrubberies, trees, mixed borders, rose garden, spring bulb meadow, rock garden and woodland garden. I even found a cat to stroke.  All in all, very enjoyable.

Despite the lack of cycle racks, I left impressed but questioning whether I really am decorating my home in faithful Georgian styles or whether I’m subconsciously influenced by 1930s country chic with a bit of arts and crafts thrown in.  Reading this fascinating series of blogs on Country House Reader about 1930s country house style adds an extra gloss on modern ‘Georgian’ interiors – I have curved lounge furniture: a dilemma indeed!

House: ****

Garden: **

When visited: July 2011

Theme tune: The Charleston

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