Nearly 35 years ago I was a national serviceman in the artillery on a gun position based in the achingly beautiful Eastern Highlands of Rhodesia. We spent Christmas 1977 there, under canvas. The site was in the grounds of a quite fancy mansion named La Rochelle in an area called Penhalonga. What I didn’t know then – and found out only quite recently – was that La Rochelle had been built by Sir Stephen Courtauld in the 1950s and until his death in 1967, was the home he shared with his Italian wife Ginie (Virginia). After the war and a spell living in Scotland, the Courtaulds (who were keen travellers) scoured Africa for an agreeable place to call home, eventually choosing this part of Southern Rhodesia.
On learning this, I also found out an interesting story that after the Courtaulds’ passing, the people who ran Eltham Palace requested that two Italian paintings at La Rochelle be returned to England. This, naturally led me to Eltham Palace, on the outskirts of London in Kent, but I only managed finally to visit a few weeks ago. It’s run by English Heritage. In the 1930s, Stephen Courtauld had built a striking Art Deco country house with all mod cons on the site of the now delapidated and mostly disappeared medieval Eltham Palace. All that remained, in fact, was the old hall, the moat and the bridge. It had been a lengthy decline: John Evelyn was shocked by its condition when visiting in 1676. The rejuvenated Eltham remained the Courtaulds home until the end of the war.
So they only lived there for about eight years. But magnificent times, judging by their home cine which are screened at the house.
The house was designed by architects John Seely (1899–1963) and Paul Edward Paget (1901–1985) and in-vogue interior designer Peter Malacrida (1889–1980). The building, on two stories, has two wings which flank a large circular hall, so called. It’s more a relaxing and hanging out area. Striking, unusual, light. Period Art-deco furnishings and heavily panelled. This is something one can forget about Deco: the wood. There is plenty of the stuff at Eltham. The decor throughout is a delight, regardless of whether you’re into the period. And utterly modern. Hot water on tap simultaneously and throughout; electric clocks in all room, 100% synchronised from a single source. These are vital considerations for exemplary hospitality-givers, and the Courtaulds were this, par excellence – the house was often thronged with an eclectic mix of guests.
Stephen Courtauld was the younger brother of the better-known Samuel Courtauld, founder of the eponymous Institute now at Somerset House. They came from a family of Huguenot silversmiths who had diversified into that other Huguenot trade – silk – and made an absolute fortune, embellished in the early 20th Century by diversification into new-fangled rayon.
But Stephen’s story is no less remarkable than his older sibling. Having signed up with the Artists Rifles, he served through World War I with the Worcestershire Regiment, at Gallipoli and then on the Western Front, winning the Military Cross. In theatres where the life expectancy of an officer was said to be six weeks, this is an amazing achievement.
A comrade-in-arms and brother officer from the Worcesters was the realist sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger, also a former Artists Rifles member. After the war, Stephen became his patron and offered much encouragement. The reminder of this relationship is a beautiful bronze in Courtauld’s study of The Sentry, the full-size statue of which is in Manchester. Also in this room are many of Stephen’s books, many of them Empire-related, which in a way point to his final years. I was tickled to see Old Rhodesian Days, 1928, I must try and get a copy.
During peace time, Stephen – like his brother – was a great patron, if somewhat more eclectic. His beneficiaries included the Covent Garden Opera and British film, particularly Ealing Studios: he loved hanging out with movie folk such as Michael Balcon, a frequent guest at Eltham.
Even in Rhodesia, from their remote Shangri-La, the Courtaulds were great benefactors, bestowing two concert halls, a theatre and a farming college. Stephen also contributed to University College, Salisbury, now University of Zimbabwe and the Rhodes National Gallery, which I enjoyed visiting as a boy (my father was sniffy!).
Stephen received his knighthood in 1958. After his death, Ginie stayed on at La Rochelle for a few years but with civil war on the horizon, left in 1970, and so we come full circle with us being served laced coffee in our sleeping bags by our NCOs on Christmas morning 1977.
So for me, Eltham Palace was a very personal visit, pulling together many strands. But it is more than worthy of a visit entirely on its own merits, definitely one of my favourite English Heritage sites.