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.