Amazing interiors: Eltham Palace and Gardens, Greenwich

Love Art Deco interiors? Then Eltham Palace is a must-see – it’s the finest one in the country. Nigel Andrew goes to Greenwich to take a tour of the ‘mother of all extensions’…

The British have never really taken to Art Deco. The style of Manhattan skyscrapers, luxury liners and swanky apartments and hotels, it’s too slick, too modern, too geometrical, too altogether stylish to fit with our love of cosiness, of irregular natural forms and archaic styles. And, of course, it was foreign: the very name derives from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925. However, for a while, Art Deco did make its mark on the design of public buildings, office blocks (e.g. the former Daily Express building on Fleet St), hotels (the Dorchester), factories (the Hoover Building in West London) and cinemas (the Odeon, Leicester Square, among many others). The impact of the style on domestic architecture, though, was more a matter of gestures towards streamlined modernism, such as the curved glass and metal glazing bars of countless suburban semis, maisonettes and apartment blocks. A dash of something daringly Moderne and geometric was quite sufficient.

‘The mother of all extensions’

However, there were exceptions, and the grandest and most extraordinary was surely Eltham Palace in Greenwich.

Eltham Palace - Image © English Heritage

Eltham Palace - Image © English Heritage

Here, in the Thirties, Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, of the wealthy textile dynasty, built the mother of all extensions – adding a sumptuous Art Deco mansion to a moated medieval bishop’s palace. They restored the ancient building as well as building their own, but the whole ensemble fell into disuse after the war. Now it has been restored by English Heritage to something like its former glory, and is open to the public. It’s a must-see for anyone with an interest in Art Deco interior design.

A painting of Stephen and Virginia Courthauld at their previous home (Andrew Crowley)

A painting of Stephen and Virginia Courthauld at their previous home (Andrew Crowley)

And the interiors are very much the point. The exterior – an awkward attempt to harmonise modern with medieval – is not very successful, nor very Art Deco. One hostile critic described the new building at Eltham as looking like a strangely misplaced cigarette factory, and he had a point – but let’s head indoors…

entrance hall with dome c english heritage

'An entrance hall like no other' - Image © English Heritage

Almost immediately you’re in an entrance hall like no other in England – a wide, airy space, apparently circular but actually triangular in plan with curved sides, flooded with light from a magnificent dome overhead. More than 20ft across, the dome is of concrete, perforated with hundreds of holes each containing thick, light-concentrating glass. To bring in even more light, there are long horizontal windows over the entrance, and, when natural light fails, concealed uplighting under the dome provides a pleasingly stellar glow. The entrance hall is a magnificent room, clearly designed to impress as well as to provide ample space for house guests to mingle. Uncluttered with furniture – a few chairs and drinks tables and a cocktail cabinet – the hall proclaims its strongly defined lines, its focal point being the circular rug that sits under the dome (and is nearly as wide). The rug’s geometric design at once unifies the space and subtly points visitors towards the rooms that radiate from the hall.

hall stephen

Marion Dorn rug - Image credit

Like many things in this house, the rug we see is a reproduction of the original (which was designed by Marion Dorn) – but it’s a faithful reproduction, and its tones of reddish-brown, pinkish beige and fawn perfectly complement the cream of the chair covers and the rich tones of the wood-panelled walls (Australian blackbean veneer). The entrance hall was designed by the Swedish architect and designer Rolf Engströmer, and his fellow Swede Jerk Werkmäster created the marquetry figures and landscapes that flank the entrance doors. A Roman soldier on one side, a Viking on the other, with architectural vistas of Italy and Scandinavia, these fanciful scenes represent the southern and northern limits of European civilisation – a big theme handled with a pleasingly light touch. Yet another Swede, Eric Grate, provided two plaques above the entrance depicting scenes from Alice in Wonderland. The Courtaulds had provided plenty for their guests to look at as they circulated, cocktails in hand.

‘Follow that’

dining room stephen

Dining room - Image credit

This magnificent entrance hall presents something of a ‘Follow that’ problem. The dining room, which opens off it, is the first of several rooms designed by Peter Malacrida, an Italian aristocrat, playboy and socialite who became a fashionable interior designer and was a friend of the Courtaulds’. Restored, his rooms at Eltham still exude a certain Hollywood-style glamour, but the Malacrida style would really need life and people to bring out its original glitzy vitality.

The Courtaulds entertaining at Eltham Palace (Cozens Collection)

The Courtaulds entertaining at Eltham Palace (Cozens Collection)

The dining room is a classic Art Deco interior, the walls lined with bird’s-eye maple flexwood, the central ceiling recess covered with aluminium leaf on a blue background, with concealed uplighting (again) creating a metallic shimmer.

art deco fireplace stephen

Art deco fireplace - Image credit

The ebonised doors and side tables are decorated with a Greek key pattern, and the polished aluminium fireplace even has the original electric fire, complete with imitation logs. Oddly, though, the room feels rather bare. Upstairs the glamour reasserts itself, with Stephen's art deco bedrooms and blue bathroom.

stephens suite credit my endless blog

Stephen's bedroom - Image credit

Stephen's art deco bathroom -

Stephen's art deco bathroom - Image credit

The former bedroom of the Venetian Suite is a fantastic Malacrida creation incorporating fragments of 18th-century panelling. The bathroom, though, is fully visible. It is lined with yellow Vitrolite, considered in the 1930s to be the ultimate easy-clean, hygienic surface, and contains a daringly chic feature almost unheard-of in England at the time – a bidet.

Panels in the Venetian Suite - Image credit.

Panels in the Venetian Suite - Image credit.

Virginia’s bathroom: Exotic glamour and sheer excess

Virginia's bedroom. Image credit.

Virginia's bedroom. Image credit.

Malacrida’s flamboyance comes to the fore again in Virginia Courtauld’s own bedroom suite. The bedroom itself is circular in shape, its curved walls lined with maple flexwood, with inlaid sycamore ‘pilasters’ at intervals giving this emphatically Moderne room a hint of the classical. The dressing table and cupboards are housed in rectangular recesses, and the main sources of light and heat are concealed within the circular ceiling – the strong lines of the room remain, as they must, uncompromised by clutter.

Virginia's bathroom

Virginia's bathroom - Image credit

For exotic glamour and sheer excess, nothing in the house tops Virginia Courtauld’s bathroom – another Malacrida design. The walls, under a vaulted ceiling, are lined with onyx in shades of green and ochre, embellished with black slate discs inset with glass spheres, and the bath sits in a tall niche lined with glittering gold mosaic. Above gold-plated taps and a lion-mask spout stands a fragment of a classical statue of Psyche. If you gasped when you first walked into Eltham’s stunning entrance hall, you might well gasp again – for rather different reasons – when you see Virginia Courtauld’s bath.

bathroom 2 stephen

The Goddess Psyche overlooks Virginia's bath - Image credit

And if you’ve had enough, by this time, of all things Art Deco and Moderne, there’s still the medieval building to explore, not to mention the magnificent gardens. And there’s some nice Art Deco stuff in the gift shop…

Eltham Palace and Gardens – Greenwich, London SE9 5QE. Plan your visit here.

At Pooky we make lovely lamps to make your interiors more beautiful. See our collection of beautiful lighting here.

Nigel Andrew is a writer and the curator of the renowned Nigeness blog.