How curious that nobody in recent decades has thought to write a monograph on one of Ireland’s most prolific and talented architects: Francis Johnston. Born in Armagh in 1760, Johnston was effectively ‘discovered’ by the city’s primate Richard Robinson who sent him to Dublin to study with the Archbishop’s architect Thomas Cooley. Following the latter’s death in 1784 Johnston took over many of his commissions, not least Rokeby, County Louth which was Robinson’s country seat (see Building on a Prelate’s Ambition, February 4th 2013). Thereafter his career never faltered and demand for his services was unceasing. Among the most famous examples of his work are the General Post Office in Dublin and, on the other side of the city and in completely different mode, the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (of which more in due course). Success allowed him to be singularly generous: appointed second president of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1824 he designed and built the organisation’s premises on Abbey Street (it was one of the casualties of the 1916 Easter Rising, ironically headquartered in another of Johnston’s buildings, the GPO). After he died in 1829 his fabled collection of paintings, sculpture, books, objets d’art and curiosities was unfortunately dispersed. But throughout the country there survive examples of his work and these consistently demonstrate the refinement and assurance of Johnston’s taste. Until recently one of the best examples was Ballynegall, County Westmeath.
Ballynegall dates from 1808 when it was designed for James Gibbons whose family appears to have been involved in banking and other business in Dublin, from whence derived their fortune. Five years earlier he or his father (also called James Gibbons) had bought the estate on which it stands from William Reynell (his forebear Colonel Arthur Reynell had acquired the estate in 172). Seemingly some of the stone from an older property called Castle Reynell was used in the construction of Ballynegall. Evidence of the Gibbons’ affluence is evidenced by the fact the house was renowned for having cost £30,000 to build: an astonishingly substantial figure at the time. James Fraser’s Handbook for Travellers in Ireland (first published 1838) describes Ballynegall as a ‘handsome Grecian mansion’ which ‘accords with the rich and beautiful park around.’ James Gibbons senior died in Cheltenham in 1834, after which the property passed to his son, James junior. He died in 1846 while hunting and since he had no children Ballynegall next passed to a nephew of his wife James William Middleton Berry. On his own death in 1855 the estate was inherited by a cousin Thomas Smyth. Ballynegall remained in the possession of the Smyth family until 1963.
In 1993 Ballnegall was judged by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan to be ‘a most delightful villa by one of Ireland’s most refined designers – a man of European stature.’ Of six bays and two storeys, its west-facing facade was perfectly plain except for a four-column Greek Ionic portico which defined the entrance. The garden front had deep Wyatt windows flanking a broad central bow. A sunken service wing to the north was matched on the other end of the house by a large mid-19th century cast-iron conservatory attributed to Richard Turner (Casey and Rowan propose this replaced an earlier one designed by Johnston), its roof supported by pilaster shafts with lotus capitals. Internally the house was a model of neo-classical restraint, the groundfloor holding an entrance hall divided into two sections by a screen of Ionic columns. This in turn gave access to the drawing room (which benefitted from the east-facing bow), library, dining room and morning room. A staircase at right angles to the entrance hall and screened from it by a further pair of Ionic columns led via a bow-shaped return to the generous first floor bedroom corridor: the basement featured an equally fine, broad corridor running the length of the building. Throughout the house the plasterwork by George Stapleton was simple but exquisite, in particular the guilotte and palmette friezes running below dentil and foliage cornices. Much of the furniture appears to have been made for the house by Mack, Williams & Gibton (the library’s bookcases look to have been especially fine) but other captivating details included the 19th century wallpapers, that in the drawing room being pink and gilt, and stenciled to represent decorative panels and pilasters.
We are fortunate that Ballynegall and its beautiful interiors were recorded in a series of photographs taken in 1961 just a year before the contents were dispersed on the instructions of Captain Michael Smyth during the course of a three-day auction in July 1962. The sale catalogue lists many fine pieces, all scattered: where are they now, and do the present owners know their provenance? The following year the house and estate were likewise sold, after which Ballynegall went through a couple of owners. In 1981 the house itself was ruthlessly stripped of everything that could be taken out: doors, chimney pieces, columns, even the floorboards pulled up for the value of the timber, and then the building unroofed. The portico now adorns the front of the K Club, County Kildare and the Turner conservatory serves as a restaurant at Lyons Village in the same county. The fate of the rest of the fittings is unknown although some of the chimney pieces apparently ended up in England.
As the photographs taken earlier this year and shown here reveal, Ballynegall has been gradually drifting into oblivion ever since that despoliationh. Back in 1993 Casey and Rowan wrote that the fate of Ballynegall was ‘one of the most tragic consequences of the laissez-faire attitude of successive governments towards the architectural inheritance of the State…There can be little satisfaction in contemplating the lacerated fragment of a Fragonard and still less pleasure in a visit to Ballynegall as it is now.’ Visiting the place is indeed a melancholy experience, not just because the building is in such lamentable condition but also because that condition is a reflection of national indifference towards our own collective heritage. Within many people’s lifetime a fine house, a masterpiece of neo-classical refinement designed by one of Ireland’s greatest architects, has willfully and shamefully been permitted to fall into dereliction. It happened because nobody cried stop. It continues to happen for the same reason…