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.