As many readers will be aware, a splendid book was recently published on one of Ireland’s finest country houses, Townley Hall, County Louth (see Of the Highest Standard « The Irish Aesthete). The building and immediate surroundings have been meticulously maintained by its current custodians but the same cannot be said for the organisation responsible for the wider grounds, including the entrance. Both the gates and the lodge here were, like the house itself, designed by Francis Johnston and ought therefore to be kept in good condition. The photographs above show their state in January, and those below in April: already in poor shape, over those intervening months the gate posts have become even more dilapidated and unless there is due intervention, their future has to be in doubt. The owner in this instance is a state body, Coillte which has an almost unrivalled reputation for neglecting historic buildings supposed to be in its care – cf. Donadea Castle, County Kildare (Another Blot on the Landscape « The Irish Aesthete), Rockingham, County Roscommon (Differing Fates I « The Irish Aesthete) and many other sites. If Coillte cannot look after such properties – and clearly it can’t – then the organisation should hand over responsibility for their maintenance to another body which will show more concern for the protection of our national heritage. It’s worth pointing out that the relevant local authority, Louth County Council, ought by now to have intervened and instructed Coillte to restore these gateposts: in their present state, they provide a very shoddy welcome to Townley Hall and its woodlands.
Townley Hall, County Louth is an Irish country house which has featured here more than once before (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté* « The Irish Aesthete). Without doubt, one of the most perfectly designed buildings in Ireland, it was the result of a happy collaboration between architect Francis Johnston and his client Blayney Townley Balfour – and also, crucially, the latter’s sister Anna Maria Townley Balfour whose involvement in the project has until recently been insufficiently understood and appreciated. The result was a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture, a work of impeccable refinement and flawless taste, with the staircase hall at the centre of the house being one of the masterpieces of late 18th century European architecture. Like all such properties in Ireland, Townley Hall has faced challenges, its future at times uncertain, but the present custodians of the building – the School of Philosophy and Economic Science – have carried out much work on site to ensure the survival of this most-important building in our national heritage. And it has now produced a sumptuous book celebrating the glories of the house and its place in the architectural pantheon, to which the Irish Aesthete has contributed several chapters. The standards of the publication are every bit as high as those of Townley Hall, making this a book of interest to anyone possessed of an aesthetic sensibility.
You can also watch me discuss Townley Hall in a short film made for the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art last summer, which is available to view at Townley Hall, Ireland | ICAA Travel Revisited – YouTube
As has been discussed here before, Townley Hall, County Louth is one of Ireland’s most perfect neo-classical buildings (see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2013/06/10/la-tout-nest-quordre-et-beaute). The house was designed in the mid-1790s by Francis Johnston, who until then had been employed primarily by Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh, often to complete commissions left unfinished following the early death of Thomas Cooley in 1784. Townley Hall is his first independent piece of work although here again the client’s involvement was critical since it is known that Blayney Townley Balfour, who owned the property, and his sister Anna Maria were intimately involved in every stage of the design.
Johnston was invited to design not just Townley Hall itself but also a number of ancillary buildings, including a new stableyard. His plans for this survive and are dated between 1799 (work being initiated on the site in May of that year) and 1804. The intention was to build around a rectangular courtyard with coach house and grainstore topped by a cupola on the north side, and stables coming forward to its immediate east and west. The south side was to be taken up by screen wall with arched entrance. Sadly this scheme was never realized, possibly for financial reasons (like many other house builders before and since, Blayney Townley Balfour discovered the initial budget was insufficient). Instead, while the northern range was constructed, it lacked the proposed cupola, and only the western range of stables were finished; a terrace of single-storey cottages runs along the eastern side of the site. Likewise the south wall with entrance arch was left unbuilt, and even a modified plan for railings with piers went unrealized. A drawing of the plan survives a penciled note reading ‘not built yet – 1837 FTB’, those initials standing for Lady Florence Townley Balfour (daughter of the first Earl of Enniskillen) who had married Blayney Townley Balfour in 1797.
As is well known, Townley Hall was sold by the heirs of the Townley Balfour family in the 1950s and, having been owned for a short period of time by Trinity College Dublin, was sold again with the Land Commission taking the greater part of the surrounding estate. Many of the ancillary buildings are no longer part of Townley Hall, including the former stableyard. Almost every other part of the former estate has been restored and brought into use, but sadly this element, which is, it seems, independently owned, has languished in neglect for a number of years, and is now in poor repair. Even if not as originally intended by Johnston, the yard remains associated with what is widely judged to be his masterpiece, and accordingly deserves a better fate.
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.
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.