Past Lives

Seely and Paget at Eltham Palace

The partners behind the architectural practice that designed Stephen and Virginia Courtauld’s art deco mansion at Eltham Palace and Gardens.

Image: John Seely and Paul Paget

When John Seely and Paul Paget met at Cambridge University, it was, in Paget’s words, ‘the marriage of two minds… we became virtually one person’. They went on to form the architectural firm Seely and Paget in the 1920s. We’ll probably never know the exact nature of their personal relationship – partly because of attitudes to same-sex love at the time – but there can be little doubt that they loved each other deeply. They both referred to the other as ‘the partner’ and they lived together in a shared house with a unique double bathroom. They spent weekends away in ‘The Shack’ – a purpose-built refuge on the Isle of Wight – to escape from the hustle and bustle of London life. Their friends and peers also referred to them as ‘the partners’.

John Seely was the eldest surviving son of the 1st Baron Mottistone. He was studying architecture at Trinity College when he encountered Paul Paget – the son of a bishop. Paul was an extrovert and John more studious. Paul did not have an architectural background as John did, but used his charm to cultivate relationships with their clients, which included actress Gladys Cooper and playwright JB Priestley.

In the 1930s the partners were introduced to wealthy philanthropists Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, who had just taken out a 99-year lease on the dilapidated Eltham Palace. Once one of the most important royal residences during the late medieval period, where Henry VIII spent much of his childhood, it had fallen into serious disrepair and the remaining buildings were at one point threatened with demolition. Seely and Paget added new wings to the surviving great hall to create a modern home fit for this high society couple, with a built-in vacuum cleaner, underfloor heating and integrated speakers in the walls. The result is an awe-inspiring art deco masterpiece with a twist. The magnificent great hall, built during the reign of Edward IV, was altered to make it look as ‘medieval’ as possible – they added a minstrels’ gallery, stained-glass windows, and a roof boss featuring the owners’ beloved pet ring-tailed lemur Mah-Jongg.

Seely and Paget went on to design and restore other buildings but Eltham Palace remains their most enduring masterpiece.

Words by Nick Collinson

Illustration by Jasmine Whiteleaf