Of all London’s historical palaces, rich in Medieval armour, Tudor ceilings, Stuart art and lavish Georgian interiors, there is one which is a little more unique in its ability to showcase a chapter in England’s history. For Eltham Palace, located just a few miles away from Greenwich, was not just the childhood home of Henry VIII. It was also later the jazz-age cocktail-swilling party palace of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld who found the Tudor palace in a stage of complete ruins. Therein began an ambitious architectural project which not only undertook to restore the Great Hall of the Tudor age, but to create a brand new palace alongside it which would turn out to be the very celebration of the Art Deco age.
Looking at its heavy stone exterior, created to intone with the Great Hall, only the addition of some curving but unmistakeably 1930s nudes in the stone work betray the modern masterpiece within. Step through the doors and you enter a modern, minimalistic space where decadence and luxury are founded in a perfect, uncluttered line, curved white spaces inlaid with gold and aluminium leaf, and a complete dedication to perfecting the design fashions of the era.
The result is a true wonder of Art Deco, and as historical houses go, this is one that truly comes alive as you imagine the endless society receptions which went on there. The character of the hosts is evident wherever you look, from the lavish gold-mosaic bathroom of Virginia (I want one of those) to the centrally heated suite created solely for use by the eccentric couple’s ring-tailed lemur.
But as ever, half the joy of visiting a great house is to enjoy its great gardens, and we cannot have picked a better time of the year to go. For the grounds of Eltham Palace were alive with the most lavish display of multi-coloured tulips and fragrant blossom which wafted gently in the breeze, settling upon the sparkling pond which, like a castle moat, encircles the palace like a silk scarf from a 1930s couturier.
Eltham Palace is a true example of how the ancient and modern can partner one another with spectacular results. And while the Art Deco house is now itself something of a historical artefact, it feels as modern and liveable today as it would have done 90 years ago. So if English Heritage ever feel like giving it up, send me the keys… I’m moving in!
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