Eltham Palace is Britain’s most architecturally important 20th century private home, writes Lesley Bellew. The property, commissioned by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld was so ahead of its time that 71 years on, most people still only dream of possessing the mod cons once enjoyed by the millionaire owners. In fact, the couple's colour home movies have now been put together into a short film that is being shown every 15 minutes in the Venetian suite, so you can go back to 1936 and meet the couple, who it seemed, had everything...
CLOSE your eyes just before you step inside the entrance hall at Eltham Palace. Forget the ancient bridge you have just walked over and the building’s understated Clipsham stone exterior.
Wind back the clock to 1936: Benny Goodman’s Stompin’ at the Savoy is playing on the gramophone, evocative laughter and whispers of romance echo to the ring of champagne glasses. Listen to your chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza purr away and enter one of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld’s high society weekend parties.
You are now in the sophisticated theatre of Art Deco. Light pours through the glass-domed ceiling into a circular entertaining room where Hollywood meets Cunard. Mingle with the 30s’ great and good – MP Rab Butler, British Arctic Air-Route explorers George Cozens and August Courtauld, Secretary of State for Air Sir Kingsley Wood, Foreign Office Keeper of Records Sir Stephen Gaselee, perhaps even the Duchess of York (the late Queen Mother Elizabeth I).
Stephen Courtauld was so rich and that he never had to work. He trained as a brewer but inherited shares from his family’s artificial silk empire, manufacturing rayon to maximise his material gains.
At the beginnning of the First World War he joined the Artists’ Rifles and was awarded the Military Cross. After the war he resumed one of his great passions, mountaineering.
In 1919 he completed the ascent of the Innominata face of Mont Blanc. In the same year he met Virginia 'Ginie’ Peirano at Courmayeur in the Italian Alps. They seemed an unlikely couple – Stephen was so typically British and reserved his friends accepted 'would not use two words if one would do’. Ginie, by contrast, was a vivacious, divorced marchioness and a descendent of Vlad the Impaler. She paraded the ultimate in chic and sported a large tattoo of a snake above her ankle.
The couple became part of London’s Mayfair set, living at Home House in Portman Square (a Robert Adam’s showpiece but now a private club – it is open to the public by appointment) and later at 47 Grosvenor Square.
The couple established themselves as great philanthropists, putting their money behind Ealing Studios, The Royal Opera House and The British School of Rome.
When the lease ran out at No 47, the Courtaulds sought a semi-rural property within Rolls Royce reach of the West End.
Eltham, then in Kent, fitted the bill and the couple hired architects Seely and Paget to restore the medieval Great Hall and build an adjoining property that would be large enough for them to entertain guests and house their extensive collections of art and furniture.
During the three years’ building work Stephen and Ginie went cruising around Europe in their yacht Virginia, seeking ideas for the ultimate modern home. They moved in on March 25, 1936. It seemed they had everything.
The couple shared their home with their nephews, Peter and Paul Peirano. Ginie urged Stephen to adopt the boys but to no avail. He did, however, look after them as if they were his own.
Ginie also wanted to adopt one of the girls working for her in the Women’s Voluntary Services during the war. The girl still does not wish to be named but told English Heritage that her own mother was very angry at such a 'ridiculous’ idea. She and Ginie did remain friends and she visited the Courtaulds when they moved to South Africa.
Another woman who remembers the Courtaulds well was Betty Young, now 91, daughter of Herbert Moore, Stephen Courtauld’s chauffeur. Betty insists Ginie 'tricked’ Stephen into marriage knowing she could not have children.
Treve Rosoman, curator of Eltham Palace, said the Courtaulds were a very private couple and subject of the couple’s lack of children was 'treated sensitively’, particularly as close relatives are still alive.
You are therefore left to draw your own conclusions from the fact, too, that Stephen and Ginie surrounded themselves with a wide circle of friends and an enormous number of pets.
Betty Young particularly remembers Mah-Jongg, a ring-tailed lemur bought by Stephen from Harrods as present for Ginie. She said: “That wretched lemur had the whole run of the house. It would bite staff and guests but it was treated like a child by Ginie. It even had its own heated room.
“Nobody would dare say anything!”
Their large dogs, Caesar the Great Dane, known to steal sausages from the local butcher (who would send on a bill to the palace), Kais the Afghan Hound and Solfo the giant poodle plus a goat, chickens, exotic swans, pin-tail and mandarin ducks – most of the poultry disappeared when the Second World War broke out and locals were hungry.
Stephen and Ginie were heavily involved in the war effort, they gave up their yacht to the Crown and their house was always buzzing with civil defence and WVS personnel.
During the Battle of Britain, more than 100 bombs fell on the grounds and four on the Great Hall. The danger of being so close to London became too much for Ginie, who was also mourning the death of her nephew Paul Peirano.
The Courtaulds moved to Scotland in 1945. It was the end of a dream, an end of an era. London society had changed, and they, unlike most Londoners, had the means to get away. The glamour of those Inter war years was lost forever unless, of course, you close your eyes...
Sunday, August 20
Romeo and Juliet
Outdoor theatre production brings a unique style to this emotionally overwhelming play. Charming, violent, passionate and brutal, this is a show not to be missed.
Prices: Adults £14/ Conc/Child £12
Gates open 6.45pm. Performance 7.30pm - 10pm
Prices and times vary for some events. Please check on 0208 2942548 or visit www.englishheritage.org.uk Eltham Palace opens Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 10am-5pm. Prices: £7.30, child 3.70, concessions £5.50. Directions: M20/A20 to Eltham, off Court Road, SE9