We were in Greenwich again last week for another family funeral and we are becoming quite familiar with this corner of London. This time we stayed at an Innkeeper’s Lodge at The Mitre, a classic old London city style pub with rooms upstairs right in the centre of the action next to St Alfrege’s church. We only had one full day and a half day for activities but we did arrive early enough in the afternoon of our travel day for Kate to quickly revisit her favourite clothes shop in Greenwich, “Meet Bernard”, and buy a new top.
Dinner that night was at a mediterranean style restaurant that turned out to be something of a local, family affair of somewhat variable quality at which almost none of the wait staff seemed to have sufficient command of English. (I think they must all have been from Barcelona). The consequence of which was that Kate ended up with a carpaccio dish with a lime, coriander and red onion dressing that she could not eat. Thank goodness for side orders of chips and char-grilled vegetables. As a result we played very safe on night number two at the Greenwich “Jamie’s Italian” where our waiter was an overly friendly “cheeky chappie” who kept calling us “guys” and telling us that he would “sort that out for us”. But the food was acceptable though I am definitely getting tired of Jamie describing everything on his menus as “incredible”. I’ll be the judge of that.
So where does Veblen come into all this? Well one reason that we stayed at Greenwich again was so that we could visit Eltham Palace, home of the Courtaulds, and The Red House, home of the young William Morris. Whilst the latter is an expression of high artistic and spiritual idealism the former is surely a wonderful expression of Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class” and the concept of “conspicuous consumption”.
Morris was only 24 years old when he commissioned William Gibbs to work with him in creating The Red House and he would invite all his pre-Raphaelite chums down to help him decorate the interior and the furnishings making sure that there was always something for everyone to do even if they had no special talent for painting or design. However Morris was soon forced to sell the house when the bottom fell out of the copper market and his private wealth dried up.
Stephen Courtauld, on the other hand, was the scion of the Courtauld family that had made and continued to make (inventing rayon) a vast fortune in the textile manufacturing trade and was always free to indulge his many interests and desires. Although he was an investor in Ealing Film Studios beyond putting money into the venture his main contribution appears to have been to host private viewings of new movies, as they were produced, in the drawing room seen here.
Eltham palace has a very long history dating back to the Domesday Book where the Manor of Eltham is recorded although the beginnings of Eltham as the site of a palace are with Bishop Bek from 1295. Bek presented the manor to Edward I and from then on it became an established residence for monarchs including Edward II, John I, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV and Edward IV. By the time of Henry VII the palace had undergone many extensions and improvements. During Henry VIII’s reign Eltham was one of only six palaces that were capable of accommodating and feeding the entire court of 800. At this time Henry began to favour Hampton Court and Eltham began to lose its prominence. James I made some further improvements but Charles I was the last king to visit the palace. From that time on the palace entered into a long period of decline such that by the time the Courtaulds took their 99 year lease on the property from the crown only the great hall and parts of the moat and gardens were left from the original splendour.
The Courtaulds commissioned architects Seely and Paget to design and build a home that incorporated all of the most cutting edge features that modern technology could offer in the way of domestic comfort together with the most sophisticated Art Deco style to rival anything to be found in contemporary luxury hotels or cruise liners such as the SS Queen Mary. The feeling today is of being on the set of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie set. To the right are our two protagonists with their pet Lemur named “Ma-Jongg” or Jonggy for short. The name is redolent of the dying days of empire and the license that he was given – he frequently bit visitors to whom he took a dislike and actually severed an artery in the hand of their wireless operator for one of their expeditions on their private yacht – and the opulence of his quarters, which were centrally heated, gives some indication of the relative status of their pet in a world of wealth and privilege.
I have created two galleries for this post which should give you a good idea of the conspicuous consumption in Eltham Palace and the simpler, more acetic style of the Red House.
As an interesting footnote to our Eltham Palace visit I should add that the Courtaulds incorporated the magnificent medieval great hall, which boasts one of the most superb examples of a wooden roof to be found anywhere today, into their house and used it to hold extravagant parties for their friends. The Courtaulds left Eltham in 1944 after only eight years of occupation and went to live in Rhodesia – which tells you all you need to know really – and the property was taken over by the military who used it for the Army Institute of Education.
A few days ago our neighbours from downstairs moved out to their new home in Wales and we went out to dinner to farewell them. In chatting about Eltham it emerged that they had had their wedding reception in the great hall due to the bride’s father being in posted to the Institute at the time and able to pull a few strings.
It is thought that it was Edward IV’s craftsmen, master-mason Thomas Jordan and master-carpenter Edmund Graveley were responsible for this extraordinary construction although it was the Courtaulds who added the minstrels gallery and the central heating!