Monthly Archives: April 2022

Palace fit for a lemur

Eltham Palace, London

Stephen Courtauld (1883-1967) had plenty of money, as a member of the family that introduced the world to rayon and, with no need to work, he spent his life as an art connoisseur and philanthropist, financing expeditions with the Royal Geographical Society, and co-founding Ealing Studios.

He met his wife Virginia (née Peirano) while mountaineering in Italy after war service with the Artists’ Rifles.  They married in 1923.

During the 1930s Stephen and Virginia Courtauld leased the derelict royal palace at Eltham in east London, and commissioned the architects John Seely (1899-1963) and Paul Paget (1901-1985) to restore the surviving medieval Great Hall and construct a discreet but modern fourteen-bedroom residence alongside.

Seeley and Paget resolved the sharp contrast in scale of the huge royal hall and the practical 1930s residence by setting the new house at a sharp angle, linked by a low entrance front which makes a point of revealing three original Tudor timbered gables behind.  The house is French Renaissance in style, punctuated by three copper-capped towers defining the hinge of the angle between the old and the new buildings.  The tapering copper roofs are an echo of the lost Tudor buildings of the Palace.

Virginia Courtauld had very definite ideas about interior design:  though Seely & Paget did most of the bedrooms and bathrooms, the fashionable designer Piero Malacrida (1889-1983) created her bathroom (green onyx with gold-plated taps) and boudoir, and collaborated with the firm White, Allom to devise the dining-room (maple, black marble floor and fireplace, and silver ceiling) and the contrasting Italian-style drawing room.  The principal feature of Mrs Courtauld’s dressing-room was a wall-map of the Eltham district in appliqué leather.  The triangular entrance-hall, top-lit by a dome, was decorated by the Swedish architect Rolf Engströmer (1892-1970) in blackbean veneer in the style of Ragnar Östberg’s Stockholm City Hall (1923).

The Courtaulds were devoted to their pet ring-tailed lemur, Mah-Jongg, purchased from Harrods in 1923.  Mah-Jongg had his own architect-designed, centrally heated quarters and was allowed access, by means of a bamboo ladder, to all areas of Eltham Palace until his death in 1938.

Mr Courtauld suggested adapting the basement billiard-room as “habitations” in the event of enemy attack, and in this underground sanctum the Courtaulds lived through the Second World War, often joined by Stephen Courtauld’s niece, Sydney, and her husband, R A Butler, who drafted parts of the parliamentary bill that became the 1944 Education Act at Eltham.

The house was hardly used as a residence in the way it was designed, for towards the end of the war the Courtaulds went to live in Scotland and eventually moved out to Southern Rhodesia, where their estate, La Rochelle, is now a property of the National Trust of Zimbabwe.  Stephen Courtauld died there in 1967;  his widow moved to Jersey in 1970 and died there two years later.

When Eltham Palace was taken over by the Institute of Army Education in 1944-5, the only fittings left in situ were the wood panelling, the two principal bathrooms and the lacquer dining room doors by Narini. 

The Institute moved out in 1992, and two years later English Heritage began an ambitious programme of restitution, recreating the décor and furnishings of the Courtauld period from the 1937 Country Life photographs and a 1939 inventory taken as a precaution against air-raid damage.

The house opened to the public in 1999 – one of the most modern houses open to the public, but actually more modern than it looks: Eltham Palace and Gardens | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk).

Eltham Palace is one of the houses featured in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘English Country Houses – not quite what they seem’.  For further details, please click here.

Derby Silk Mill Museum

Derby Silk Mill Museum

After five years of work, Derby’s industrial museum, rich in exhibits that commemorate the huge and varied heritage of the city, is now open to the public, with free entry, as the Museum of Making.

It occupies the much-altered Silk Mill building, on the site of an early mill dating from 1704.  What survived of Thomas Lombe’s 1722 building was destroyed in a fire in 1910, and the rebuilding carefully replicated the five-storey original as a three-storey building attached to the surviving distinctive tower.

Using the best of modern display techniques in a variety of ways, the Museum draws together the varied contributions Derby has brought to the world.

Visitors walk into a new atrium beneath a suspended exploded Toyota Corolla Hybrid car, manufactured south of Derby at Burnaston, and look towards a seven-tonne Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 aero engine, also suspended above the staircase.

There are close-up views of the Trent 1000 upstairs, with an opportunity to compare it with the earliest Rolls-Royce Eagle engine that began production in 1915, one of the type which powered Allcock and Brown’s pioneering non-stop Atlantic crossing in 1919.

There’s a bewildering array of objects and images relating to Derby’s involvement in iron-founding, railways, engineering and textiles, and its association with such diverse figures as the physician-inventor Erasmus Darwin, the painter Joseph Wright and the clockmaker and scientist John Whitehurst.

The pinnacle of this cornucopia of Derby memorabilia is the ‘Railways Revealed’ exhibit, which includes the latest version of the Midland Railway model layout, the grandchild of an original which has delighted Derby children and enthusiasts since 1951.

The Museum is an appropriate gateway to the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site which stretches northwards as far as Cromford, which ties together an astonishing variety of historic monuments of the early Industrial Revolution.

In view of the quality and significance of the Museum’s collection, it’s odd that it’s been given the vapid branding ‘Museum of Making’.

It could be anywhere.

I choose to call it the Derby Silk Mill Museum, so that people know where it is.

Derby Silk Mill

Silk Mill, Derby

Though Sir Richard Arkwright is rightly credited with establishing the first successful water-powered cotton mill at Cromford, Derbyshire, in 1771, his was not the first industrial innovation in the Derbyshire Derwent Valley.

On an island on the Derwent in the centre of Derby, Thomas Cotchett had commissioned the engineer George Sorocold (c 1668-c1738)  to build a three-story water-powered silk-mill, using inefficient Dutch machinery, in 1704.

Cotchett’s business failed, and the site was taken over by Thomas Lombe (1685-1739), a Norwich-born London silk-merchant who had had the foresight to send his half-brother John (1693?-1722) to work for Cotchett as an apprentice. 

Thomas then travelled in Italy, where he is said to have worked incognito in a throwing-mill and covertly sketched the machinery.

Lombe took out a British patent for the Italian-designed silk-throwing machinery in 1718, and Sorocold built the Italian Works, on twenty-six arches oversailing the waters of the Derwent, to accommodate the machinery.

The main building contained the twelve circular throwing-machines, eight 12ft 7in-diameter Torcitoii and twelve 12ft 11in-diameter Filatoii, both types 19ft 8in high, on the lower two storeys and 26 winding-machines on its upper three floors.

George Sorocold’s previous experience of water-supply machinery can scarcely have prepared him for the mechanical complexity of the 4,793 star-wheels, 10,000 spindles, 25,000 spinning-reel bobbins, 9,050 twist bobbins and 45,363 winding bobbins of Lombe’s patent-design.

The Mill was completed in 1722, and immediately became an object of exceptional interest to visitors, including Daniel Defoe, James Boswell and John Byng, 5th Viscount Torrington.

After the patent expired in 1732, other silk mills were built in Macclesfield, Stockport and Congleton, and though the trade experienced periodic periods of depression, by 1830 Macclesfield had seventy silk-factories employing 10,000 people.  There were seventeen silk-factories of one kind or another in Derby in 1840.   

Though the silk-trade continued to flourish into the nineteenth century to the north-west, in Derbyshire it declined in the face of the profitable growth of cotton-spinning and the difficulty of importing raw materials during the French wars, and tended to diversify into the specialised manufacture of ribbon and tape.

The Derby Silk Mill operated,  with one short break at the end of  the  eighteenth century, until 1890, when it suffered a partial collapse, then in 1910 the whole of the Italian Works was destroyed by fire and shortly afterwards the adjacent Doublers’ Shop was demolished. 

The present Silk Mill building was rebuilt on the original stone river-arches to a different design, but with a similar belfry, as a chemical manufactory. 

A coal-fired electricity power-station, notorious for its filth, was built on the landward side of the site and the mill building was occupied by the borough electricity department. 

When the power-station was replaced by a more discreet sub-station for the National Grid the Silk Mill building became the Derby Museum of Industry and Technology, opened in 1974, and Robert Bakewell’s Silk Mill gates were returned from the Museum & Art Gallery at the Wardwick, to stand near to their original site.

The Industrial Museum closed in 2016 for a major refurbishment, and reopened, in spite of the pandemic, in May 2021 as the Museum of Making.