Stephen Courtauld and his wife Virginia were known for their fancy – and somewhat unconventional – dinner parties at Eltham Palace. Just imagine being invited for cocktails in an extravagant Art Deco home or dancing in a medieval hall that once accommodated Tudor kings. The gramophone is spinning, the drinks are flowing.
Your hosts couldn’t be more different from each other. He’s an introvert born into the highly successful Courtauld textile empire, one of Britain’s largest producers of lingerie and underwear. She’s a vivacious socialite and marchioness thanks to her her first marriage to an Italian aristocrat. Virginia’s love of entertaining overshadowed Stephen’s reservations, and as a guest you could count on an evening at the Courtauld’s being nothing less than colourful.
During the 1930s, the Courtaulds welcomed everyone from secret agents and politicians to royalty and film stars. Queen Mary was a guest in 1938 and later commented: ‘I like the Courtaulds very much, and loved their enthusiasm. I must say that I thought some of the modern part (of the palace) a little overdone – but it was all very interesting, and my goodness what a good feed we had! And good champagne!’
Follow our guide and learn how to host your own 1930s dinner party inspired by the Courtaulds and their Art Deco palace.
Prepare to welcome pop-in visitors
Not everyone enjoys a spontaneous arrival, but Stephen and Virginia, or Ginie as she was known, welcomed them. The Courtaulds effectively kept an open house with visitors arriving whenever they fancied. Guests would also be invited formally, particularly by Ginie, but they were also encouraged to drop-in whenever they were free.
Be ready for surprise guests by always having something prepared to serve and pour. Keep your fridge stocked with canapés and your bar fridge filled at all times.
Follow fashion trends, but rebel when necessary
Fashion in the 1930s was all about glamour and style, despite being overshadowed globally by the Great Depression. For wealthy men and women living in England, like Stephen and Ginie, it was a couture crime to be underdressed. Guests remember Ginie’s love of fashion and designer gowns. Friend Peter Lovegrove said ‘she was always nicely dressed, and very posed, carried herself well. I think she was great.’
But it wasn’t all about the latest fashions. It was well known that Ginie had a tattoo of a snake wrapped around her ankle, a mark of her days as a rebellious teenager, which she usually kept under wraps in polite company. Even so, when glimpsed at a dinner party it could cause quite a stir.
Need inspiration? Discover fashion trends from the 1930s with Ruth and Eve Goodman in our YouTube video for some tips.
Always mix cocktails before dinner
At about 6pm, pour your guests a pre-dinner cocktail, just like the Courtaulds did in the 1930s. Stephen and Ginie would usually host this in their entrance hall, but you can take your guests wherever you like, so long as it’s separate from the dining area. Drinks were selected from a hostess trolley or taken from the cocktail cabinet and served by the man of the house. During this time, the women would sometimes take place away from the men in Ginie’s boudoir so have a think about where the ladies can retreat.
Archive audio recordings include one guest recalling having tea with brandy on arrival, and another having passion fruit juice with a touch of angostura bitters. Other popular cocktails included the Aviation and Commodore cocktails.
Mix your guests a 1930s-style cocktail by following our YouTube recipe.
Keep numbers small for dinner parties
Between five and eight guests was a common number for a Courtaulds dinner party. This number keeps the conversation personal and gives guests enough time to speak to everyone.
Of course, the Courtaulds didn’t always stick to intimate affairs. They hosted large parties too, like the birthday celebration for Ginie’s nephew Peter Peirano. The Courtaulds hosted more than 200 guests who danced in the Great Hall to music by Lew Stone’s orchestra. Staff were served by barmen and barmaids dressed in themed-Tyrolean costume.
Invite guests with different interests, even if they don’t get along
Ginie made a habit of inviting guests who were different from each other – but they didn’t always get along. Guest Margaret Bernard recalled that ‘Ginie loved having dinner parties, but she didn’t altogether consider the political feeling of her guests and, I don’t think deliberately, but very often muddled up ones which really were not going to mix. When she realised… she used to retire to bed.’
Guests included mountaineer, writer and secret agent Freddy Spencer Chapman, Kew Gardens botanist John Gilmour and film director Michael Balcon as well as sports stars and politicians.
Your guest list doesn’t need to be as illustrious. Your closest friends will be perfect. We suggest inviting guests who will get along to avoid fiery conversations.
Serve international cuisines and don’t forget the wine
Dinner for the Courtaulds was usually around 8pm and held in their fashionable Dining Room, designed by Italian aristocrat and interior designer Marchese Peter Malacrida. Italian is a good choice of cuisine to serve to your guests given it was Ginie’s favourite and it was served frequently at Eltham Palace. It’s also a nod to her Italian-Hungarian heritage. Even during the war the chef at Eltham Palace was known to serve pasta and other Italian foods.
Guests described their meals at Eltham Palace as ‘lavish’ with plenty of fine wine from Stephen’s wine cellar. You can make your selection from your own cellar, but a fridge or wine rack will be fine.
Have an after dinner plan
The party doesn’t finish once the plates are cleared. Make like the Courtaulds and either retire to a separate space, share photographs from your recent exotic travels or lift the lid on a jigsaw.
The important tip here is to keep your guests entertained at all times. You could even put a film on, which was common at Eltham Palace, partly because many of their friends were from the film industry and Stephen was a director of Ealing Studios.
Don’t be a party animal, own one
Forget locking your dog outside to appease your pet-phobic friends. Follow the Courtauld’s lead and give your animals free rein of the house just like they did with their beloved pet lemur Mah-Jongg.
On more than one occasion Mah-Jongg, or Jonggy, bit guests under the dinner table. But, the Courtaulds refused to keep him locked up. ‘It was a nasty, vicious animal’, one guest said, adding that his presence sometimes deterred potential guests. If you do want to keep guests around, perhaps show a bit more consideration.
Make up the spare room
The Courtaulds had the luxury of living in a palace that could sleep up to 12 guests. Many guests stayed the night and there were usually three to five people at any one time. Try to accommodate your guests with whatever space you have. This is particularly important if you intend to continue into the wee hours of the morning like the Courtaulds were known to do.
Those who stayed over described it as hotel-like and ‘almost too luxurious’. But the sofa bed will definitely do if you don’t have a bank account like the Courtaulds.
Get ready to do it again
After throwing a successful dinner party, you know your guests will be keen for more. Put in another date in the diary and get ready to do it all over again.
Visit Eltham Palace
You can visit Eltham Palace to find out more about the Courtaulds and their party-loving lifestyle.
See the grand Art Deco entrance where the Courtauld’s hosted their pre-dinner cocktails and explore the medieval Great Hall which was built for Edward IV and has hosted parties for centuries ever since. Discover the map room where the globe-trotting couple planned their exotic travels and visit Ginie’s bedroom and ensuite with its luxurious gold mosaic tiles. Plus, try on some vintage-replica 1930s outfits and see some exquisite period dresses and accessories in her walk-in wardrobe.
Eltham Palace is open every Sunday between 10am and 4pm. Holiday closures apply, see our website for full details.
Sunday 3 December
11am – 5pm
Join us for a Christmas celebration at Eltham Palace this December. Stephen and Ginie are preparing for a legendary 1930s society party and would love to see you there. See costumed characters and swing performances. This event is free with your ticket price.