Gold phone returned to art deco bedroom after being saved from skip

A gold telephone saved from a skip has returned to the art deco bedroom for which it was commissioned eight decades ago by the socialite Virginia Courtauld.

English Heritage on Friday announced that it had been given a telephone that spoke volumes about the glamorous, over-the-top lifestyle of the inhabitants of Eltham Palace in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, south London.

Courtauld and her husband, Stephen, were a millionaire couple who, in 1933, alighted on a medieval palace in Eltham and saw it as the perfect doer-upper that was both semi-rural and in easy reach of central London.

It was fitted out with all the new technology, including electric fires, a loudspeaker system broadcasting records to rooms on the ground floor, a private internal telephone exchange and a huge centralised vacuum cleaner.

The rotunda entrance hall of Eltham Palace.

The rotunda entrance hall of Eltham Palace. Photograph: Alamy

At a time when most people had coal or wood fires, the Courtaulds had hot water pipes heating ceilings, floors and the first-floor quarters of Virginia’s pet ring-tailed lemur, Mah-Jongg, or Jongy.

Everything had to be fabulous, including her ensuite bathroom, which was lined with gold mosaic and onyx, gold-plated bath taps and a marble statue of the the Greek god Psyche.

Courtauld commissioned five gold telephones for the bedrooms and they were used until she and her husband moved out in 1944, fed up with the bombing.

The lease of the house was passed to the Army Educational Corps which became the Royal Army Educational Corps (RAEC). It moved out in the 1980s and in the process all the phones, evidently left by the Courtaulds, were thrown away.

Fortunately a sharp-eyed RAEC member spotted the gold phone in a skip, retrieved it and has now donated it to English Heritage, which looks after the palace.

Olivia Fryman, English Heritage’s curator of collections and interiors, said it was a wonderful donation and the only surviving gold telephone that belonged to the Courtaulds.

“This important object gives a real sense of the glamour and modernity of the interiors and the couple’s extravagant lifestyle,” Fryman said. “From being housed in bomb-hit Eltham during the second world war, to being accidentally thrown away, it is a miracle that this telephone has not only survived but finally found its way home.”

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