One of my favourite houses is Townley Hall in in County Louth, Ireland. It is not open to the public but the institution that owns it are happy for enthusiasts to look round, which I did a many years ago.

Townley shares the classic rise and fall of many Irish country houses. The estate had belonged to the Townley family since Cromwellian times. Passing through various sons and nephews, it was Blayney Townley Balfour who in 1794 commissioned Francis Johnston to design the present house. The family owned it until 1957 and then it passed through various hands until eventually it was bought in the 1980s by its current owner, the School of Philosophy and Economic Science, who use it as a residential study centre.

Townley’s plan follows the classic ‘noughts and crosses’ form with a circular staircase hall in the middle. This makes for an efficient plan as all the rooms are around the edge making use of the natural light and the central space is lit from above, so all areas have light throughout the building. Also having a staircase in the centre makes for excellent circulation as all the rooms can be connected without the use of corridors.

The ‘noughts and crosses’ plan has a long history going back to Palladio’s Villa Rotunda and the slightly later Villa Rocca Pisana by Scamozzi. Two centuries later this basic building type became a staple of Georgian architecture, being the inspiration behind houses like Chiswick House and Mereworth Castle. It was the Georgians who came up with the next innovation of putting a staircase in the central hall, which was done by a number of architects, most famously by James Paine at New Wardour Castle in Wiltshire.

Arriving at the Townley estate, the first thing you see is a Greek Revival gate house which sits on the roadside and sets the tone for the house beyond. After driving through the gates, you come into an area of dense woodland which gives way to a beautiful park where the house sits on the high point of the estate. This arrival sequence was not doubt carefully stage managed by a landscape designer of the Capacity Brown school. The house itself is a simple grey stone block almost modernist in its lack of ornament and architectural detailing. Large evenly spaced sash windows punctuate the facades with no surrounds, rustication or pediments. The only piece of ornament is a Greek Revival porch; I say Greek revival, but the Doric columns are far thinner than anything in Ancient Greece and the entablature is straight out of Vignola which makes it Italian Renaissance. But it is none the worse for its eclectic sources. This muted exterior gives nothing away about the excitement of the rotunda within.

It is this staircase hall that makes Townley a masterpiece and one of the greatest examples of Neoclassical architecture to be seen. This type of stairs, known as a cantilevered stair, has a long history going back millennia. Significantly Palladio wrote about them in Book One of his Four Books of Architecture.

Like the ‘nought and crosses’ plans, English Palladians took their master’s staircase form and reused it with aplomb as can be seen at the Queen’s House, Greenwich and the Dean’s Staircase at St Paul’s. Excellent as these examples by Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren undoubtably are, neither compare with the sheer beauty of Johnston’s staircase at Townley. The whole sequence of seeing the staircase from the entrance hall, framed by the curve of the first floor landing above which reads as an arch, then moving into the round hall and seeing the coffered dome with its massive oculus which gradually reveals itself as you move forward. The scale of the top light apart from bringing in a huge amount of light also means that you can see clouds wafting past and this effects the amount of light in the room moment by moment and so you feel as if you are almost outside. The staircase itself is the thinnest cantilevered staircase imaginable and with its gentle pitch and the smooth underside it gracefully glides up to the light filled pantheon above.

Throughout this space the walls and dome are ornamented with elegant plasterwork, which is all modelled in shallow relief, and so despite there being a lot of decoration in this space, it does not seem overpowering. The floor also has the most subtle decoration consisting of a complex pattern which is pieced together from the same coloured stone.

The rooms that surround the rotunda continue the serene simplicity of the elevations and have varying lengths, but all are 24ft in width. There is some ornament on the ceilings and fireplaces, but this like elsewhere in the house is incredibly light and delicate. When I saw the house, these rooms were painted in a variety of colours, some quite bright and filled with the paraphernalia of its educational function. I would love to see what these rooms would look like painted in carefully chosen shades of off white and sparsely populated with Georgian furniture.

Townley is the end of a long tradition of classical architecture stretching back in an unbroken line to the Renaissance. During the late 18th century this lineage was starting to fragment as gothic, chinoiserie and a myriad of other styles became fashionable. Eventually gothic dominated and Francis Johnson responded by becoming a master of this style too. It would be interesting to speculate how differently the modernist movement would have evolved if it were not for a hostile reaction to the sketchbook froofiness of the Victorians, and instead took off from where Townley landed. Perhaps the architecture of the 20th century would have more taste, charm and dignity.

Francis Terry

Exterior pictures by MVK Architects

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