Could there be more of a contrast than tropical Mérida one day and an English royal stately home in springtime the next? And not just any old stately home, but Eltham Palace, once the playground of Henry VIII, one of only six royal residences large enough to accommodate and feed the entire Tudor court. But what makes Eltham stand out is the controversial transformation of the house back in the 1930’s by textile millionaire Stephen Courtauld and his vivacious and chic wife, Virginia, Ginnie, to a state-of-the-art Art Deco masterpiece – with one condition. That they fully restore Eltham’s imposing medieval hall. It’s a stunning and quite jarring clash and, not surprisingly, not to everyone’s taste, but they sensitively preserved and protected this vast wooden hall for the nation and, in the process, created one of the most unique homes in England.
At the time, one critic of the architecture said it was “admirably designed but unfortunately looked like a cigarette factory”.
The Art Deco wings of the house are remarkable and, I would say, quite unique. Thanks to a beautifully done restoration by English Heritage, the house has been brought back to life as if the Courtaulds were still in residence and expecting guests for one of their famous party weekends. The dining table is set, the beds are made up, the sitting room feels as if someone has just walked out, the library is stocked with readable books and even the flower arranging room (every house should have one) has freshly cut flowers on the bench. There are built-in cocktail bars in all the rooms, centrally powered electric clocks, an internal telephone exchange and even a heated ‘jungle room’ for the Courtaulds’ pet lemur Mah Jongg with a bamboo ladder enabling him to come down from his first-floor quarters during the daytime. Surrounding the house are 19 acres of beautiful lush gardens including a stunning 16th Century arched bridge over a moat.
There’s a free audio tour that recreates the sound and atmosphere of the house during its 30’s hey-day, recalling the various guests and occupants of the rooms as you’re standing in them.
What parties this house must be seen!
At a dinner for the Duchess of York (future Queen Mother) in 1936, the Courtaulds served free-flowing 1923 Veuve Clicquot champagne prompting the Duchess to write “I like the Courtaulds very much, and loved their enthusiasm. I must say that I thought some of the modern part a little overdone, but it was all very interesting and my goodness what a good feel we had! And good champagne!”