Lead Us to the Rock
Rokeby Hall is quite the trailblazer. A late 18th century house successfully adapted for early 21st century living. Architecture so spare it heralds modernism. Built in 1786, Rokeby Hall predates architect Francis Johnston’s masterpiece Townley Hall by a decade. Both houses are in the Boyne Valley. Rokeby portrays many of the architect’s trademarks: a restrained cuboid; precise cut stone elevations; an attic floor behind the parapet; a circular internal central space. Unlike its next in line, Rokeby Hall has an original long single storey service wing. In the 20th century, the wing was converted into garaging. This century has proved kinder: it’s back to being a kitchen again – plus an adjoining sitting room with exposed brick walls revealing earlier iterations.
Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh, originally commissioned his go-to architect Thomas Cooley to design him a country house. But when Thomas died in 1784 his apprentice Francis took over and made it his own. The Archbishop named the house after his family home Rokeby Park in County Durham which his brother had lost. This wasn’t the first building to benefit from the hands of the master and his protégé. The private chapel of Armagh Palace was designed by Thomas Cooley and its interior completed by Francis Johnston.
The Johnstons were a construction dynasty. Francis’ brother was also an architect – his design for Castle Coole in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, was adapted by James Wyatt. The Archbishop was already in his 70s when he commissioned Rokeby Hall and died in England before it was completed. His funeral carriage would ride past the house. The 400 hectare estate with the big house, stable block, 30 farmhouses and three gatelodges passed to the Archbishop’s nephew. Four generations of the Robinson family would enjoy life here until 1913.
The current owner explains that a descendent of the Archbishop, Sir John Robinson, married Sarah Denny of Hertfordshire, who arrived in the 1840s armed with a handsome dowery of £40,000. While the newly minted Robinsons retained the essence of Francis Johnston’s brilliance, they couldn’t resist some glazed interventions starting with inserting heraldic stained glass into the round headed landing window showing off the history of the estate. The owner points out how the entrance hall sums up the history of the house in one space: the original columned and corniced interior; Victorian encaustic tiles on part of the floor; 1950s wallpaper filling the wall panels.
While at Townley the architect would make a double height circular feature of the staircase hall, here at Rokeby he designed a first floor landing swirling round to connect the main bedrooms. Internal circular windows above the doors of four symmetrically placed lobbies prove the owner’s observation that every living space in the house benefits from natural light. Francis Johnston wasn’t just a meticulous designer; he was trained as a carpenter by his father. The architect left a knowing note at Townley, “I have worked out the timber calculations so no overcharging for materials!”
Sir John and Lady Sarah didn’t stop at a stained glass window. They commissioned Richard Turner, the Joseph Paxman of Ireland, to dream up a conservatory. And dream up he did. One of the great glass structures of the county, province and country, the conservatory at Rokeby Hall was recently restored over one and a half years by the same company who resurrected Ballyfin’s glazed extension. Pulleys open the roof windows. The restoration won an award from An Taisce, Ireland’s answer to the National Trust. And what colour did the owner paint the metal frame? Turner White of course.