Wednesday 26 August 2015

Eltham: Art Deco and Moats

Yesterday, with the rain still falling, I paid a visit to Eltham Palace, a rare survival in Southeast London of a moated bishop's palace, made the more remarkable by the additions and modifications wrought by the Courtauld family in the 1930s.
The result is a bizarre amalgam, or cut-and-shut, of medieval solidity and Art Deco luxury. Being no fan of the Art Deco style, I wandered around these lavish interiors - recently refurbished - dreaming wistfully of what might have been, had a first-rate Arts and Crafts architect got to work on the restoration and adaptation of the palace.
 Eltham is an English Heritage property, and its presentation is directed firmly at 'engaging' the public, re-creating the experience of being a guest in the house, etc. Which would be fine (or at least ignorable) if they'd been a bit more diligent in the refurbishment of the interiors: there are some jarring touches, such as incongruously new taps in some of the bathrooms, and some odd choices of replacement textiles, rugs, etc. Little remains in the house of the Courtaulds' great art collection (and that little is mostly neither labelled nor mentioned in the guidebook), but there are two Veroneses skulking in the shadows - and one of them is in such dire need of cleaning that it's barely visible.
 Still, on the plus side, the medieval great hall is a wonderful survival, its mighty hammerbeam roof a marvel. We had a good view of it from the minstrels' gallery, while down below in the hall, excited children were whacking each other with rubber swords, egged on by a young would-be actor in medieval clothing - all very English Heritage... And the beautiful moat, the gardens, the setting of the house, the tout ensemble are all fine (though a contemporary critic of the 1930s building likened it to a strangely misplaced cigarette factory, and you can see his point). On a less rainy day, the whole experience would have been, I'm sure, very much more enjoyable.
 The same could also be said of the day's other attraction, a mile or so up the road, hard by the railway, the high-street shops and the A2 - Well Hall Pleasaunce, a fine garden, or series of gardens, dating back to medieval times. With formal layouts, a large walled garden, woodland and water, it's a delightful place for a stroll, though it would of course be a good deal more pleasaunt in dry and sunny weather. Well Hall Place - the tall 18th-century house where E. Nesbit lived - was sadly demolished in the 1930s, but the magnificent moat survives (and beside it a restored Tudor barn). It was in Well Hall Place that Nesbit wrote her greatest works, toiling away into the night to support her husband, the appalling Hubert Bland, their family, two of his by-blows and one of his mistresses. Still, she did find time for the occasional punt on the moat.


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