THAT A HOME IS A REFLECTION OF ITS INHABITANTS could not be more true with Eltham Palace: the lavish, eclectic former residence of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, Interwar London socialites and patrons of the arts. They were in their 40s when they married, and a decade later sought a home accessible to London that was large enough for their parties.
In 1933, the couple took a lease on the palace, historically one of only six royal residences that could accommodate the Tudor court's 800 people. Destroyed by Puritans in the 1600s, Eltham's great hall survived, with its restoration serving as a condition for the Courtaulds' permission to build. At 30.8 meters long by 10.9 meters wide, it is only second to Westminster Hall as the largest surviving pre-Tudor great hall without an aisle.
Building at Eltham took place from 1933 to 1936, led by architects John Seely and Paul Paget. They designed the house on a butterfly plan, with one wing linking to the great hall and the other comprising living areas. Highlights of the residence include the entrance hall with blackbean veneer walls, the art deco dining room with animals drawn from life at London Zoo, Virginia's gold and onyx bathroom featuring a statue of the goddess Psyche, and of course, the medieval great hall with its hammerbeam roof and minstrels' gallery.
Details from Virginia's bedroom, the dining room and entrance hall:
The variety of styles offer a strange yet sumptuous experience of Eltham, giving hints as to what the Courtaulds' home life might have been like. Modern and historic, pristine and playful, the space echoes its host and hostess' own personalities, said to have been a contrasting combination. Calm, quiet Stephen was scion of the Courtauld textile empire and a keen mountaineer. Impulsive Virginia was a marchioness divorcée with a snake tattoo.
And as if a palace and parties weren't opulent enough, the couple shared their luxuries with their Great Dane Caesar and pet lemur Mah-Jongg, who enjoyed his own heated jungle-fresco room. Historians say the house was perhaps the most advanced in England on its completion, featuring a plumbed-in vacuum cleaner, centrally powered electric clocks, speakers relaying radio or gramophone records to every room, and built-in cocktail bars.
Stephen and Virginia continued to entertain at Eltham through the Second World War, retreating to the basement during air raids. Weary of the bombing, they eventually moved out in 1944 to Scotland, and then to Southern Rhodesia.
The restored Eltham Palace today informs about design for luxury in the early half of the 20th century, but it also spells the bittersweet fact that there are luxuries even wealth cannot buy. Across the varying and eclectic ways in which we desire to live, there will always be common elements among the differences: peace and freedom to be oneself amidst people and things we love. What could be more luxurious than that?
Eltham Palace, Greenwich, London, english-heritage.org.uk Photos by Lady San Pedro and Jaime Sese.