The ceiling of the former dining room at Townley Hall, County Louth, a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture designed by Francis Johnston c.1794 for his well-informed patron Blayney Townley Balfour. Very spare, very pure, this is design at its most ascetic and at the same time most refined. (For more information on Townley Hall, and especially its matchless staircase, see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté*, June 10th 2013)
Two of the ceilings in Townley Hall, County Louth, that of the drawing room (above) and the entrance hall (below). Dating from the late 1790s Townley has been discussed here before, not least its rotunda stairhall (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, June 10th) but amply repays further visits. The neo-classical masterpiece of Francis Johnston, the house owes as much to the couple responsible for its commissioning – Blayney Townley and Lady Florence Balfour – as to the architect. As these photographs show, the purity of decoration throughout is flawless.
One of the glories of Beaulieu, County Louth is its early 18th century double-height entrance hall. This features elaborate baroque carving in each of the spandrels above the hall’s doorcases. In their guide to the Buildings of North Leinster Casey and Rowan write that the carving represents ‘arms and weaponry’ but as the photographs above and below show, this is not always the case: these two arches are filled with musical instruments and with open sheets of instrumentation. In the peace that followed the end of the Williamite Wars, these carvings declare the moment had come to acknowledge, as William Congreve wrote around this time, that ‘music has charms to sooth a savage breast.’
In this instance the view is on the ceiling and best viewed while lying on the floor. In the drawing room at Beaulieu, County Louth, the compartmental plasterwork ceiling climaxes in an oval central panel filled with painted canvas. Attributed to 18th century Dutch artist Willem van der Hagen, the trompe-l’œil scene extends upwards through a classical arcade and into the open air whence Icarus can be seen taking a tumble after flying too close to the sun. Hovering putti seem remarkably indifferent to the poor fellow’s fate.
In 1788 nineteen-year old Blayney Townley Balfour inherited the estate of Townley, County Louth from his grandfather. Sensitive, intelligent and affluent, around the time he came of age Balfour consulted with architect Francis Johnston about building a new house at Townley to replace the existing structure: Johnston had not long before completed work for Archbishop Richard Robinson at nearby Rokeby Hall (see Building on a Prelate’s Ambition, February 4th). At that stage the proposed design was not dissimilar from that seen at Rokeby, the idea being to construct a tall pedimented block.
The project proceeded no further before 1791 when Balfour departed for France with his mother and sisters. Leaving them behind in Nice, he went on to Italy and spent time exploring the heritage of Florence and Rome, in the latter city meeting the Scottish neo-classical architect James Playfair. Following Balfour’s return to Ireland in early 1793 he received three designs for a new house from Playfair and while some of the ideas these contained (specifically the notion of a sunken courtyard at the rear of the building to accommodate kitchen and other services) were eventually incorporated, none of them was used by Townley Hall’s owner.
Informed by all he had seen on mainland Europe, once back in Ireland Balfour reverted to Francis Johnston. Yet the outcome of this commission seems to owe as much to client as architect. Indeed Balfour and one of his sisters Anne produced their own drawings for the proposed house and came up with its most distinctive feature: the circular central stair hall. Nevertheless the specifics of Townley Hall were designed by Johnston and it is justifiably considered to be his masterpiece.
From the exterior, the building could not be more simple and unadorned: an apparently two-storey block (there is also a basement, and an attic level concealed behind the roof parapet) faced in limestone with each side of seven bays (except for the rear) and measuring ninety feet. The entrance is distinguished only by a plain porch with paired and fluted Doric columns and the windows are no more than openings in their respective walls.
The interior of Townley Hall is equally spare, but the occasional decorative flourish is so well applied and the quality of workmanship so flawless that the result is a building of rare refinement. Even so, nothing prepares a first-time visitor for the coup de foudre which lies at the heart of the house: its stair hall. This space owes an obvious debt to Palladio’s Villa Rotonda and to the Pantheon, both that in Rome and that designed in London by James Wyatt in 1772. Indeed Wyatt’s influence on Johnston’s work at Townley Hall is generally accepted, not least because in 1796 Blayney Townley Balfour married Lady Florence Cole whose family lived at Florence Court, County Fermanagh which is not far from Wyatt’s own neo-classical masterpiece Castle Coole.
Four mahogany doors set on the cardinal points and within relieving arches open into the stair hall. The cantilevered Portland stone stairs (with slender brass balusters finishing in a mahogany handrail) rise with gentle sinuosity around the wall perimeter, breaking once to form a landing directly above the door facing that from the entrance hall. At this level the doors are surrounded by arched frames which are also repeated around the curved walls, even when the stairs intervene. In order to minimise the divide between ground and first floor Johnston devised a shallow stepped Greek key border interwoven with a vine tendril, lines of acorns hanging from the lower section.
Once on the landing, greater degrees of decoration are permitted, not least in the treatment of a further series of arches alternately left clear and filled with stuccowork of frolicking putti (and in three places they open into shallow lobbies providing access to bedrooms). At their topmost point these arches are tied by keystones to a frieze beneath the dome of ox skulls between swathes of drapery. Above it all rises the lightly coffered dome of thirty feet diameter, the central portion being glazed.
There are times when language cannot do justice to a work of art, and Townley’s stair hall is one of them: the pictures shown here are infinitely more eloquent. The elegance of proportions, the perfection of form, the play of light on surface all combine to make this without question one of the loveliest rooms in the country, a flawless piece of design, the culmination of 18th century Irish architecture and a tribute to those responsible for its creation. No longer a private house, the building is now under the care of the School of Philosophy and Economic Science which is currently undertaking a programme of repair.
With thanks to Michael Kavanagh of MVK Architects.
Radiating Portland stone lozenges cover the floor of the staircase hall at Townley Hall, County Louth. Dating from the late 1790s, the house is architect Francis Johnston’s masterpiece, one of the purest examples of neo-classicism in Ireland.
This also marks the hundredth piece from the Irish Aesthete since the site made its debut last September. And so readers, you are cordially invited to offer feedback: what subjects most interest you; about what would you like to read more; are there buildings or subjects you wish to see featured? As ever, comments of the literate and temperate variety are welcomed.
I shall be writing further about matchless Townley Hall in a few weeks’ hence.
The limestone gate lodge of Townley Hall, County Louth, believed to have been designed around 1819 by the main house’s architecturally informed owner Blayney Townley Balfour and his wife Lady Florence Cole. Taking the form of a dimunitive Greek temple, it makes a striking impression not least thanks to the pedimented and Doric columned portico. Although now empty, it continues to be well preserved and to demonstrate the possibility of achieving a lot with a little.
In 1751 an impoverished but well-connected Anglican clergyman came to Ireland and within a year had been consecrated as Bishop of Killala. Over the next decade he advanced through two further sees before being appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1765. Richard Robinson (1709-94) was the sixth son of a Yorkshire landowner and as such it was inevitable that after graduating from Christ Church, Oxford he should have considered the Church as a lucrative career. Few of his clerical contemporaries, however, acquired so much or spent so lavishly.
He arrived in Dublin as chaplain to the then-Lord Lieutenant, Lionel Sackville, Duke of Dorset, whose support helped secure that first episcopacy. But it is clear that Robinson was always destined to make a mark. After his death it was said that during his time there Armagh had been converted ‘from an unsightly crowd of mud cabins into a handsome city of stone dwellings.’ Among the buildings for which he was responsible are the public library, the Royal School, the barracks, a county gaol, the public infirmary and, most famously, in 1793 the Armagh Observatory for which he created an endowment. Long before that date, finding the Archbishop’s residence unsatisfactory, he had a new one built for him on a 300 acre demesne, together with stables, farmyard and a chapel. No wonder Methodism’s founder John Wesley accused him of being more interested in building that in the care of souls.
Robinson behaved like a continental prince-bishop. In his memoirs the playwright Richard Cumberland, whose father was Bishop of Clonfert, recalled accompanying the Archbishop to Armagh Cathedral one Sunday: ‘He went in his chariot with six horses, attended by three footmen behind… On our approach the great western door was thrown open, and my friend (in person one of the finest men that could be seen) entered, like another Archbishop Laud, in high prelatical state, preceded by his officers and ministers of the church conducting him in files to the robing-chamber and back again to the throne.’
Robinson’s lofty aspirations – the reliably-waspish Horace Walpole judged him ‘a proud but superficial man’ – led him to seek secular as well as religious preferment and in 1777 he was created Baron Rokeby in the Irish peerage. Some years later he acquired an estate in Marlay, County Louth and here built a house which was given the name Rokeby Hall (http://www.rokeby.ie). By so doing he evoked the Robinson family’s Yorkshire seat which his older brother Sir Thomas, an amateur architect but professional spendthrift, had been obliged to sell in 1769. So the new Rokeby in Ireland was intended not just to serve as a country retreat but also to replace a lost estate and provide an alternative dynastic base: although the Archbishop never married, there were several potential heirs among his siblings’ offspring.
As his architect for the house, Robinson chose Thomas Cooley who had already been responsible for many of the new buildings in Armagh, including the Archbishop’s Palace. Unfortunately Cooley died in 1784 and so his plans were handed over to the youthful Francis Johnston. Born in Armagh, Johnston’s abilities had been noticed by Robinson who sent him as an apprentice to Cooley in 1778. Nevertheless, although the younger architect oversaw Rokeby’s construction surviving plans show just how much its layout is as originally devised by Cooley.
Rokeby’s limestone exterior looks somewhat severe, the facade relieved only by the slightly advanced three centre bays with first-floor Ionic pilasters beneath a pediment. To the immediate right and reticently recessed is a long extension which might appear to be a later addition but is in fact contemporaneous with the main house and originally contained many of the necessary services such as a large kitchen. The main house is often described as being two-storey over basement. However there is a splendid attic storey tucked behind the parapet and centred on a striking circular room lit by glazed dome; as a result of an acoustic trick when you stand directly beneath this your sense of hearing is affected.
While obviously not a small house, Rokeby is by no means palatial and the appeal of its interiors lies in their neo-classical refinement devoid of superfluous ornamentation. This is evident in the entrance hall where the space is simply but effectively divided by the intervention of two Doric columns. There is relatively little plasterwork decoration, except on the main staircase and the upper landing. The latter is one of the finest features of the house: a circular lobby off which open various bedrooms and dressing rooms, every second door topped by an oculus providing light for this space.
These rooms look to have retained their original chimneypieces, sadly not the case on the groundfloor. On his death Archbishop Robinson left Rokeby to a nephew, John Robinson, Archdeacon of Armagh (created a baronet in 1819) but he fled Ireland after his father-in-law, Captain James Spencer of Rathangan House, County Kildare, was killed by rebels during the 1798 Rising. Rokeby was then rented to a sequence of tenants; James Brewer’s The Beauties of Ireland published in 1826 noted that the house ‘is now, we believe, in the hands of a farmer, and the chief apartments are let furnished to casual inmates.’ Only some time after Archdeacon Robinson’s death in England in 1832 did his son Sir Richard return to Rokeby and presumably embark on a programme of refurbishment necessary after almost half a century of neglect. Hence the chimneypieces in the main rooms are of a later date as are some doors, evident in the different disposition of their panelling.
Descendants of the Robinsons remained in possession, although not necessarily in occupation of Rokeby until the middle of the last century, after which the house passed through a variety of hands often with unfortunate consequences. When the present owners bought the place in 1995, for example, the library had been stripped of its bookcases and divided in two with one half used as a kitchen.
Over the past eighteen years, a process of gradual restoration has taken place at Rokeby, driven by just the right balance of enthusiasm, commitment and ongoing research into the house’s history. At the moment, the owners are undertaking the restoration of Rokeby’s most notable 19th century addition: a substantial conservatory designed c.1870 by Richard Turner. This is due to be reinstated later in the spring. One feels confident that even if members of his family are no longer in residence, Archbishop Robinson would be delighted to see the country house he commissioned so well maintained and loved.
A mezzotint produced in 1764 by Richard Houston and based on a portrait of Richard Robinson painted by Joshua Reynolds the previous year and now in Christ Church, Oxford. Reynolds painted Robinson three times and a version of the last of these hung in Rokeby until the last century. Today it is in the collection of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham.
Beaulieu, County Louth is one of Ireland’s most distinguished early houses with a superlative double-height entrance hall. It has been owned by successive generations of the same family since the lands on which Beaulieu stands were granted to Sir Henry Tichbourne by Charles II in 1666. The building is believed to have assumed its present form at the start of the 18th century during the time of Sir Henry’s grandson, also called Henry, first (and last) Baron Ferrard of Beaulieu; the name of John Curle is usually cited as probable architect. Most recently Beaulieu has been under the care of the tenth generation of Sir Henry’s descendants, Gabriel de Freitas, who very sadly died this week.
Here is a photograph of Gabriel (standing left) in 2010 when she kindly hosted the Irish Georgian Society’s summer party at Beaulieu. She was a wonderfully forceful character who in earlier decades had been a well-known racing driver and had built up an impressive collection of classic cars. I remember the first time we met, at lunch in Leixlip Castle, mentioning to her Fiona MacCarthy’s 2006 book The Last Curtsey, in which both Gabriel and Beaulieu appear. The response could best be described as trenchant: Gabriel was most displeased that the author had failed to consult or notify her in advance. (Incidentally, another debutante of 1958 discussed by MacCarthy in the same work was Rose Dugdale, who later joined the IRA and took part in the 1974 art robbery at Russborough, County Wickow).
Having returned to Ireland only a few years ago to assume responsibility for Beaulieu, it is cruelly unfair that Gabriel, who was so dynamic and vital, should have been denied the opportunity to do more for the place where her family has lived for almost 350 years. One hopes that with her customary speed she has gone to enjoy the company of her angelic namesake.
Above photograph courtesy of Barry Cronin, http://www.barrycronin.com