It is amazing what drops into the lap of government. Apart from too much of our money, ‘they’ have a habit of holding on to things acquired in times of National Emergency and not giving them back . One of the delights of this of course is that sometimes these properties become preserved and then shared with us ‘hoi polloi’. Eltham Palace has some of the best Art Deco interiors to be seen in London, all preserved mercifully by the ‘brown jobs’ after the Army took it over in 1944, hanging on to this historic and delightful piece of London until (probably reluctantly)handing it over to English Heritage in 1995.Originally an 11th century moated Manor House in a then rural area outside London it was given as a Royal Palace to Edward II in 1305 by the Bishop of Durham. (See Ightham Moat for an example of a surviving 14th Century moated manor). The main surviving element of its days as a Royal palace is the Great Hall, built in the 1470’s and bearing the marks of the passage of time (look for the remnant of the burn from incendiary bombs in the last little European disagreement). Here Henry VIII is reputed to have played as a child.
The building of Greenwich gave royalty somewhere closer to town, easily accessible by river, and Eltham gradually fell into decline, being badly damaged in the Civil War. For 200 years from the mid 17th century the buildings were used as a farm. In an early example of conservation in the 1820’s the Great Hall was saved from destruction and restored only to continue its use as a barn.
Rescued in 1930 by Virginia and Stephen Courtauld of the textiles family, the estate had a modern house built adjoining the Great Hall – and imagine the fuss that would be made if anyone tried that today! Stephen was the younger brother of industrialist and art collector Samuel Courtauld (founder of the Courtauld Institute of Art), and was also a Director of Ealing Studios. The Courtauld house was stylish and reflected the times, and the family also created a garden of national importance as a fine example of 1930’s garden design. Both house and garden have been restored by English Heritage to their 1930’s Art Deco glory – and what glory it is too.
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