For the first of this year's series of outings we went to Eltham Palace in the Borough of Greenwich. The palace started life as a manor house, built in the 1290s by Antony Bek, Bishop of Durham and a courtier and trusted minister of Edward I. In 1305 he presented it to the future Edward II. The building was greatly enlarged in the 14th century and became the favoured royal residence on account of its 1,000 acre park, ideal for hunting.
Henry VIII and his sister spent their childhoods there. In the 1470s Edward VI built the impressive Great Hall, one of the largest surviving medieval halls in Europe (as is Westminster Hall); this hall was used for entertainment and for Court administration, indeed Cardinal Wolsey had to go there once on church business. By now the palace complex had grown to its apogee with numerous buildings including a chapel; it was one of the six main royal residences in England. However, in the 17th century it started to decline after the Civil Wars and was used as a farm for 200 years with the Hall, the last remaining building, becoming a barn.
Much later, in the 1930s, Stephen and Virginia Courtauld took a 99 year lease on Eltham from the Crown. He enjoyed his share of the wealth of the family firm, but without working for any of it. Instead he pursued his intellectual and artistic interests and also grew prize-winning orchids in the greenhouses. Virginia was of Italo/Hungarian parentage, loved entertaining and could afford to indulge her passion. The house was designed for entertainment and to display Stephen's art and furniture collections.
Architects Seely & Page designed two wings in a V shape with an entrance hall joining the two arms of the V. This hall is the masterpiece of the house and makes a striking first impression: triangular in shape, lit by a circular glazed dome above. The walls are lined with Australian black bean veneer with some marvellous Swedish marquetry, as smooth as silk. This room still contains 30s-style furniture and carpet and in a concealed corner there is a phone which guests could use to make outside calls. In the south wing (ground floor) are a drawing-room, Virginia's boudoir and Stephen's library, all with beautiful woodwork. In the north wing is the dining-room: thoroughly Art Deco, as is all of the house. In addition to upstairs bedrooms is the heated quarters for Viginia's pet lemur; I hope it was house trained - the guests hated it.
The south wing adjoins the Great Hall and from the Minstrels' Gallery, a Courtauld addition, one can view it in its majestic simplicity. From the Screen Passage one can walk into the Hall and admire its twenty windows at clerestory height and its hammer beam roof.
The house had all the latest 30s mod cons and the garden had all the 'must-haves'. The Courtaulds redesigned the gardens, refilling the moat to make a feature of it with a large rock garden to the east. It's a gardener's paradise and beautifully maintained by English Heritage, as has been the house since 1995. Surprisingly, the Courtaulds only lived in the house for eleven years. A coachful of members thank June Peck for a marvellous visit and Paul, our Soames driver.