We took an afternoon trip to nearby Eltham Palace on Bank Holiday Monday.
Managed by English Heritage, Eltham Palace is a weird proposition for us suburban types.
At one point in time, it was a rural location, within a manageable distance of London when the likes of Henry VII and VIII stayed there, now the palace and its art deco extension built in the 1930s is located on the edge of a large park, surrounded by the surburban sprawl of south London. The idea that a typically English bank holiday attraction nestles in amongst the very environment so many of us want to escape from on extended holidays momentarily challenges the mind. Normally such distractions require a long drive out into the country. Our journey was only ten minutes. One wonders why we hadn’t gone there before now.
It is an unusual place too. More of a hotel with a limited number of rooms than a home with an extensive range of facilities tailored to the needs of its owner, Eltham Palace’s luxurious splendour still seduces seventy years after its previous owners – the Courtalds – completed the lavish art deco extension.
This would perhaps be the 1930s equivalent of a Grand Design had Kevin McCloud been alive back then. A monument to those who dared to have their homes designed in an entirely unorthodox way. Architecture truly as art. The building challenges us. We bring our experience of how buildings are designed and find ourselves wandering around something built in the 1930s and think ‘oh, that’s a bit strange’.
The reception area (above) feels like a television set. The two grand staircases are designed with long flowing dresses in mind. Glamorous women looking to make an entrance. Corridors leading off the reception towards the Great Hall (dating from the 1470s) have individual studies for Mr and Mrs Courtauld, sectioned off with imposing partition walls. The rooms on the first floor give off wide corridors or in one case a seemingly over-sized landing. Although the individual master bedrooms for Courtalds are spacious, there’s still a sense that space in the other rooms on the first floor is sacrificed in favour of landings, corridors and entrances to stairwells. An unnecessary indulgence. Perhaps even ill-thought out given that the ceilings on the first floor aren’t especially high.
There’s wood panelling everywhere, at first easy on the eye, but after a while an opulence that almost seems obscene compared to today’s standards.
But the most potent feeling is the notion of wandering around someone else’s home. The Courtalds left Eltham Palace around the time of the second world war. That makes this historic building comparatively young. A family presence less than 70 years ago makes their presence tantalisingly near. Thus, the experience of wandering around the property feels a little like us day-trippers are rubbernecking. That took some getting used to.
Particularly impressive was English Heritage requesting visitors not to take pictures anywhere inside the house. I’m not entirely sure why. Was it to save other visitors from the annoyance of flash photography? Or was it to encourage sales in the gift shop? Either way, the effect was beneficial, focussing the eyes and the mind on the reason we were there: to see something rather odd but fascinating, to picture the people who lived there and imagine their stories.
And maybe that’s one of the most fascinating things about Eltham Palace. It’s recent past sparks the imagination more than an old castle somewhere. If you’re looking for a building to ‘speak’ on a variety of levels and to linger in the mind after a visit, this would be one to make a point of visiting.