Mah-Jongg of Eltham Palace: Victim of Vogue?

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Eltham
Eltham Palace

For us today, the idea of capturing wild animals and domesticating them seems pretty deplorable, but for the bright young things of the 1920s, exotic pets were the latest craze – and no one seemed too bothered about the ethics of the trend.

Whether you moved in the arty and bohemian circles of Paris, London or New York, or lived in the White House, you wanted to be seen with an unconventional pet – the more exotic the better. Josephine Baker had a pet cheetah and Frida Kahlo a pet deer called Granizo, in addition to her several monkeys, birds and dogs. Grace Coolidge – the First Lady to the US president John Calvin Coolidge Jr. – liked to pose for the press, whenever possible, with her pet raccoon Rebecca.

In London, the Harrods Department Store – famous for accommodating its customers’ most imaginative requests – catered for this trend, too, like no one else. The pet department, opened in 1917, matched the London Zoo in its huge selection of animals. Out of all the pets in captivity at Harrods, one ring-tailed lemur got rather lucky: in 1923, newly-wed society Lady Virginia Courtauld bought him and named him Mah-Jongg. For Virginia and Stephen Courtauld, a childless couple with disposable income, the cheeky little lemur quickly became something of a family member.

For Mah-Jongg, having a family – even a human one – was probably preferable to spending his days in a cage. In the wild, lemurs tend to be quite social, live in relatively permanent and cohesive groups and many of their social systems resemble those of monkeys and apes. Due their night-time activity and slightly ghostly appearance – with a scull-like white face and black rings around the eyes and nose – the species were named after lemures, the spirits of the dead of in Roman mythology, often considered troublesome creatures needing to be appeased. And Mah-Jongg – or Jongy as he was affectionately called by Virginia – certainly got his fair share of attention with the Courtaulds. When the Courtaulds went travelling on their motor yacht, Mah-Jongg went with them and was provided with his own specially designed miniature lemur deckchair.

Lemur
Mah-Jongg in a miniature deckchair

Jongy had been with Virginia and Stephen for ten years when they took on a 99-year lease from the Crown on Eltham Palace in South London in 1933. Once the home of King Henry VIII, the place was in a state of decay until the Courtaulds set their eyes on it and spent considerable amount of money and time on it, turning the palace into a modern mansion. The Courtaulds were given surprisingly free hands to reshape it to their own taste; the only prerequisite was that they would restore the Great Hall –  the last remaining part of the medieval castle – to its former glory.

In the capable hands of the architects Seely and Paget, with the Swedish architect Rolf Engströmer responsible for the stunning circular entrance hall, Eltham Palace became a masterpiece of Art Deco interiors. The Great Hall was handsomely restored too, with a few modern additions such as electric light sconces. The Courtaulds renewed the stained glass windows and added new vaulting and ornamental carvings, including one that portrayed – you guessed it – Mah-Jongg in stone!

Courtalds
Virginia & Stephen Courtauld with Mah-Jongg

In Eltham, Jongy had his own room, with delicate decorative murals imitating Madagascan rainforests, painted by Gertrude Whinfield. Like the rest of the Palace, Jongy’s room had central heating which was used to create a tropical climate. A trapdoor in the floor and a pole ladder offered him immediate access to the Flower Room adjacent to the entrance hall.

Despite deck chairs, orchid wallpapers and being treated as a family member, Jongy remained in touch with his wild side. When the Courtaulds held a lunch for the British Arctic Air Route Expedition on their motor yacht in 1936, Mah-Jongg bit the expedition’s wireless operator, Percy Lemon, so viciously that he severed an artery. Jongy also enjoyed swinging down the pole when the Courtaulds were entertaining and arranging surprises to their guests – snapping tiaras off lady guests’ heads, stealing an olive from a gentleman guest’s martini, or, sometimes, just sinking his sharp teeth into the guests themselves. Lemurs have been observed to use yawns as threats, so perhaps for the guests at Eltham the trick to avoid Jongy’s unwanted attention was to stay lively.

But was Jongy to blame for these incidents? Hardly. To our contemporary eyes, the whole exotic pet fad seems rather unethical. At Harrods, whose adverts boasted that you could buy anything from a hummingbird to an elephant from their store, the business of wild animals boomed for more than fifty years. Finally, in 1976, a large part of Harrods’ selection was outlawed by the Endangered Species Act that restricted the importation and exportation of certain animals and plants and transactions related to them.

Mah-Jongg died in Eltham in 1938, after sharing the Courtaulds’ glamorous lifestyle for fifteen years. Perhaps he would have been happier living with other lemurs in his native Madagascar, but you cannot blame the Courtaulds for trying their very best to offer him a comfortable life. And if you visit Eltham Palace today, you see that the spirit of Mah-Jongg still lives on!

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