Eltham Palace’s millionaire owners spared no expense when creating their Art Deco party pad

Eltham Palace is a masterclass in modern design and decadence.
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Are separate bedrooms the secret of a happy marriage? If so, it might be one reason why textiles heir Stephen Courtauld and his wife Virginia were so blissful in the glamorous Art Deco mansion they built in 1936 at Eltham Palace in Kent, where each had their own magnificent bedroom with en suite bathroom.
Virginia’s bathroom was onyx and pure gold while Stephen’s was entirely covered in handmade turquoise tiles, and the two bedrooms were romantically connected by a disguised door.
Here are just a few other suggestions as to why the Courtaulds were so content: they were stupendously wealthy, spending half the year globetrotting by private yacht and chauffeur-driven car among Europe and Africa’s glitterati, and the rest of the time throwing parties in their lavish home, which was decorated by the best designers of the day with no expense spared.
The house had every newfangled mod con of the time, from its own telephone exchange and underfloor heating, to synchronised clocks in guest rooms.
Imposing figures: marquetry panels in the entrance hall depict a Roman soldier and Viking guarding the room
A flower room off the hall, with 100 vases constantly filled from the 19-acre gardens that included Stephen’s orchid hothouses, was opposite a payphone booth with a flip-up seat for any guest to use... as long as they had spare change.
Also for the use of party guests, either side of the entrance lobby was a pair of staffed cloakrooms, just in case - cheery from downing more Martinis than prudent - you lost a stud or tore a chiffon flounce.
On a more domestic note, in the basement lurked a gigantic vacuum cleaner that looks like a steam engine, which was connected to outlets throughout the mansion for the army of staff; there were 15 gardeners alone.
Meanwhile, if you opened a mysterious medieval-style door discreetly marked Minstrels’ Gallery at the end of an upstairs corridor, hidden behind modernist screens, you would find yourself on the gallery of the Great Hall built by King Edward IV about 1470. Henry VIII, who was born and raised at Eltham, and other monarchs until Charles I also used the hall.
The Courtaulds enjoyed throwing parties here for up to 450 people, fox-trotting gaily to the best bands under the famous gilded hammerbeam roof that had looked down on the antics of some of our greatest kings and queens. All this, fully restored, is now on show.
It feels like the set for an episode of Poirot or Jeeves & Wooster — except that this was real, with an ever-changing cast of people the Courtaulds met on their travels, plus politicians, film producers and royalty. Queen Mary visited twice, and Stephen, who was financial director of Ealing Studios and a trustee of the Royal Opera House, invited streams of guests.
Born in 1883, Cambridge-educated, bookish Stephen was the younger brother of Samuel, who founded the Courtauld Institute of Art. The family wealth was built on rayon and with no need to make a living, Stephen, who was awarded the Military Cross in 1918, enjoyed climbing and scaled Mont Blanc in 1919.
That year, he also met the vivacious Virginia Spinola, née Peirano, in Courmayeur in the Italian Alps. They married in 1923 and Virginia bought a ring-tailed lemur from Harrods, calling it Mah-Jongg. “Jongy” had its own bedroom at Eltham with underfloor heating, murals and a bamboo ladder down to the flower room. Famously quick to bite people it disliked, the creature also had its own striped deckchair on the family yacht, the Virginia.
The couple began searching for a semi-rural retreat near town, and two young Cambridge architects, John Seely and Paul Paget, suggested the site of Eltham Palace, Greenwich. Once so glorious, most of the square-moated palace had been destroyed, leaving just the windowless and roofless Great Hall - used as a barn - and some of the moat and bridges.

In 1933, the Courtaulds took a 99-year lease from the Crown. Astonishingly they were allowed to build what they liked, as long as they restored the Great Hall. Inconceivable today, but it led to the audacious creation that quickly followed. This immense house, complete with all its mod cons and extensive use of unusual woods including pear and sycamore, not to mention the huge concrete dome in the hall, studded with circles of glass, took just three years to design and build.
On completion, the bi-winged house, coming off its central circular hall, was compared to a cigarette factory, but in fact the building, nestled in its gardens, rather resembles a Hollywood-inspired château.
The stunning circular hall/drawing room designed by Swedish architect Rolf Engströmer is bigger and brighter than you expect, with its re-woven Marion Dorn carpet, chic loose-covered white armchairs and complex marquetry.
Most of the other interiors were by the eccentric Italian interior designer, Marchese Peter Malacrida. The dining room is equally dramatic, with its bold, key-pattern black and silver-leaf doors decorated with animals from the five continents, a coved aluminium leaf ceiling, and pink dining chairs.
Following a £1.7 million restoration by English Heritage, previously unseen rooms are on show. They include Virginia’s walk-in wardrobe, the basement with its superior bomb shelter kitted out with plenty of beds, a billiards room decorated with murals, and a map room.
Sadly, the Second World War put the philanthropic Courtaulds off Eltham, particularly after three direct hits.
In 1944 they decamped, first to Scotland, which was too cold for Jongy, then to Zimbabwe, where they built a house called La Rochelle. Stephen died there in 1967.
After the Courtaulds left Eltham, the Army took it over.
This extraordinary home, every inch of which tells the vivid life of its owners, still rings - almost - to dance music piped through loudspeakers, and the crystal clink of cocktail glasses.

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