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Architects Architecture Country Houses

Lavender’s Blue + Townley Hall Louth

Thrill of the Chaste

An immaculate concept, a late Georgian flowering. Townley Hall in County Louth came about in the closing years of the 18th century. Incredibly, the house was the first private commission for the 34 year old architect Francis Johnston. Talk about peaking early?! In the end, his built legacy covering neoclassical and gothic was pretty impressive but you can’t improve upon perfection. Its spare patrician architecture is devastatingly appealing to the modern eye. Minimalism before there was minimalism. Plain planes. An achingly svelte seven bay by seven bay 90 foot square.

The architect conceals and reveals scale as you move round the exterior. Apparent simplicity; clever duplicity. This is a four storey house disguised on three sides as a two storey one. The rear kitchen wing is recessed into the hillside. Attic dormers lurk behind a solid parapet. Just like Castle Coole in County Fermanagh except there, the dormers peep through balustraded gaps in the parapet. Actually Townley Hall is Castle Coole taken to a whole new level of Grecian severity serenity. The client Blayney Townley Balfour married Lady Florence Cole in 1794. She was from Florence Court, a neighbouring estate of James Wyatt’s masterpiece. Florence Court by then would’ve seemed terribly old fashioned; no doubt the newlyweds were inspired to move with the times, keep up with the Lowry-Corrys, so to speak.

Townley Hall is an essay in structural rationalism, a formal stone box offset by rolling countryside. Recent semiformal planting softens the juxtaposition. Unencumbered by irrelevant architectural frippery, Francis’ taut lines push things to the limit. He lets go – just a little – with the kitchen wing. A collection of curves carefully enriches the fenestration: recessed arches; a bow window; round headed windows; and segmental arched tripartite mezzanine windows. The wing is still augustly treated.

It’s not just purity of design that makes Townley Hall shine. Workmanship and materiality are also top notch. The ashlar on the outer walls was quarried from nearby Sheephouse. It has lower water absorbency than most limestone. Mortar is barely visible between the masonry. Metal rods reinforce the slimmest of window glazing bars. There’s lots more besides.

Savour this missive. We’re a truffle laden production line of epigrams and epiphanic imagery. Dithyrambic ramblings are us. We skip the sunlight fantastic to explore the great indoors, protected from Louth’s mad merciless heat by the sheer immersive power of the mansion. Soon we will disappear into Ireland’s scorched hinge, a crucible, the once embattled Boyne Valley, navigating inchoate recesses of the mind.

The entrance hall has twin Doric fireplaces, more restrained versions of those at Castle Coole. Rectangular plasterwork wall panels resemble vast empty picture frames. A coffered ceiling adds to the room’s perpendicularity. Straight ahead is the rotunda, a 30 foot diameter glass domed cylinder forming the core of the house. A swagger of geometric genius. A swirl of cantilevered staircase. A swoop of plasterwork swags and skulls. Irish neoclassicism at its most suave. There are just two coats of paint on the walls: the current 1920s creamy beige over the original stone grey. The ribbed dome casts a spider’s web of shadows which leisurely climbs the staircase as the afternoon progresses.

The south facing drawing room had Chinese wallpaper, now gone. Was the interlinking ceiling rose pattern inspired by the dining room ceiling of Castle Coole?! Above the drawing room, Lady Flo’s boudoir and dressing room also face south, capturing panoramic views. They form one of five pairs of family suites clustered round the first floor rotunda lobby. The only view from the servants’ bedrooms is the backside of the parapet under a sliver of sky. The windows of the attic barrack room aren’t so obstructed. Guards needed to be on watch.

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Architecture Country Houses

Colebrooke Park Fermanagh + Golgotha Dining Room

Stag Party

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Country Houses Hotels Luxury

Finnstown House Kildare + Lord Lucan

Hey Good Lucan

Heir today, gone tomorrow. Around 3,000 Irish country houses have “done a Lord Lucan” (the not so lucky 7th Earl) and disappeared over the last century. Finnstown House in his erstwhile squiredom ain’t one of them. It opened as a hotel in 1987 and for the last decade has been run by Jim Mansfield. The Dublin businessman has a penchant for antiques; there are plenty of period rooms to fill. No Victorian dining room is complete without a taxidermy hostess mirror.

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Luxury People Restaurants

Tate Britain London + Rex Whistler Restaurant Jazz Lunch

The Riding on the Wall

Tate Britain is the quieter relative of the extended family. Tate Modern has Herzog + de Meuron’s sexy ziggurat with its brilliant incidental installation (Watch Rich People In Their Apartments). Tate Britain has James Stirling’s paean to contextual irony. Lost on most, the less said the better. Thankfully, the Rex Whistler Restaurant is located in the basement of the original sturdily neoclassical gallery. Or is it? Entrances at varying degrees above ordnance data dictate an enjoyable disorientation. Lower ground floor? Garden level? Sub piano nobile?

Rex. The name conjures up a dilettantish dandyish raffish character. Definitely a Bright Young Thing. Julia Flyte’s American beau in Brideshead Revisited. Rex Bart Beaumont, chum of Charles Howard Bury, last owner of Belvedere House in Mullingar. Known to all and sundry as “Sexy Rexy”. The pair enjoyed jaunts to Tibet accompanied by a pet bear. No aggressive normalcy there, then.

Paintings are best seen from a seat. The Garrick Club gets that with its dining room wallpapered by in Zoffany. Before Carl Laubin (who completed a capriccio of Castle Howard estate buildings in 1996) and even before Felix Kelly (who painted the Garden Hall murals at Castle Howard in 1988) there was Rex Whistler. His 1937 murals can be admired traipsing through the National Trust dining room of Plas Newydd on the Isle of Anglesey but how much more relaxing to soak in his 1927 murals at the Tate lounging over lunch. At least that was the plan.

Gloriously out of sync with the modernist spirit of the age (more country house than Bauhaus), The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats is a whimsical adventure chronicling a party in search of epicurean delights. Follies and fortresses, temples and turrets… it’s an escapist setting, an ageless fantasy, Chinese wallpaper without the paper. Trompe l’œil gargoyle headed grotesques support the pedimented entrance doorcase. Half moon windows are treated as grottos. All the more remarkable given that Rex undertook this feat as a 23 year old Slade student. Tragically just 17 years later, the artist was killed on his first day of action in World War II. Rex Whistler’s legacy continues to inspire and enthral. His portraits of Lady Caroline Paget and her brother, later 7th Marquess of Anglesey, both recently sold for twice their estimates.

Lunch is served in the leafy garden along the Thames Embankment. Fresco to alfresco. A moveable feast. Fête champêtre. The meal is bookended by bubbly. Isn’t all hydration good for you? That’s a fair enough excuse for flutes of Coates + Seely Brut (£11.50). “Complex citrus infused fizz from one of the UK’s most impressive estates,” reassures the wine list. Hampshire’s finest fizz followed by Hampshire’s finest fish. Arriba! L’Abrunet 2015 (£27.00), “Made from organic white Grenache grapes grown in Catalonia,” adds to the bibulous nature of this indulgent Saturday afternoon. In honour of the founder of the gallery (Henry Tate was a sugar merchant) it would be rude not to have pudding. And it does result in a three course deal (£35.95). “Moderation is overrated,” agree the couple at the next table. The food’s wonderful – aptly British with a nod to the Continent. No buyers’ remorse.

The jazz ensemble strikes up. Maybe Tate Britain isn’t so quiet, after all.

Categories
Architecture Country Houses

Lavender’s Blue + Castle ffrench Galway

Fortissimo

Anglicisation from Gaelic is to blame in some instances (The Argory is a case in point) but quite a few Irish country houses have intriguing names. Jockey Hall and Shandy Hall (the latter in Dripsey) sound fun. Whiskey Hall sounds like too much fun. Bachelors Lodge and Hymenstown are presumably miles apart. Mount Anne or Mount Stewart anyone? The mildly unnerving Flood Hall, Fort Etna, Spiddal Hall and The Reeks. Is Sherlockstown worth investigating? Zoomorphic zaniness: Fox Hall, Lizard Manor, Lyons, Mount Panther and Roebuck Hall. Elphin – Castle? Place names too. Bungalo begs the question: is it full of single storey residences?

Lots of houses without so much as a battlement are called castles: Beltrim Castle, Castle Coole, Castle Grove, Castle Leslie. Castle ffrench joins this list although there are ruins of a tower house on the estate. The double consonant lower case doesn’t disguise the fact the name originated somewhat unsurprisingly in France. The ffrench family were part of a Norman landing in County Wexford in 1169. In time, they became one of the 14 Tribes of Galway. Their single consonant upper class case cousins owned French Park in County Roscommon.

Castle ffrench is a star of Maurice Craig’s seminal work Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size. He notes its plan is virtually identical to Bonnettstown’s in County Kilkenny, despite the 90 mile 40 year gap. A notable feature of both pretty Big Houses is the pair of staircases side by side, like slightly asymmetric Siamese twins. A thin wall between the pair once segregated the classes’ ascent and descent (for richer, for poorer). One is dressed in plasterwork; the other bare. Landings pressed against the four bay rear elevation provide interesting mid storey variations in window positions. Both stairwells are lit by tall fanlight topped windows identical on the outside – only the family one has internal panelling.

The front elevation is more conventional, the grouped middle three bays of a five bay composition gently projecting. Urns and finials sprouting from a solid parapet dot the horizon. A three storey over basement (hidden to the front | semi exposed to the sides | for all to see to the rear) limestone block, this house is the epitome of Irish Georgian style. It even has an archetypal fanlight set in the entablatured triglyphed pilastered fluted rosetted doorcase. Conservation architect John O’Connell calls the building “very accomplished” and recognises the influence of the architect Richard Castle. A niche in the entrance hall is marginally unaligned with the ceiling plasterwork above. A signal that the house is the work of a builder with a pattern book or two at his disposal? Or simply plastered on a Friday afternoon?

Castle ffrench rises above an unruffled patchwork quilt, a landscape of interlocking greens, quieter than Pimlico Tube Station on a Friday evening (are Pimlocals like Peter York too posh to push onto public transport?). So silent. Rural aural aura. Within the vale beyond The Pale. A mile long drive and 40 acres keep the populace at bay. Augustine days of yore aren’t so distant… Indoors, there’s a hooley! The plasterwork, at any rate. The stuccodores’ genius charges towards zenithsphere in the entrance hall and landing (of the family staircase). Neoclassicism and rococo blend and blur in mesmerising jigs and reels of fables and foliage ribboned round Irish harps and ffrench French horns. Wreathes and sheaves and sickles, the whole shebang.

Lady Fifi ffrench (stutteringly fitting phonetics or what?) and her husband John were the last of the original family to reside at Castle ffrench. Sheila and Bill Bagliani, the current owners, have sensitively restored this knockout property, subtly preserving its patina of age. Bertie the Labrador and Sally the Westie run amok through the grounds. Sheila, a talented artist, has a top floor studio to kill for. No really. All stairs lead to a second floor central corridor spanning the full width of the house. This corridor might not have the ornate plasterwork of the spaces below but it’s very much defined by a series of blind and open arches like abstract vaulting. A forerunner to Sir John Soane’s streamlined style. At one end, a door opens into a softly lit corner room with views to die for. There are flowers and canvases and a ghost – a previous owner refuses to leave and who could blame her? – in the attic.