The Townley Hall Book

The inside story

As the forthcoming publication finally winds its way through the printing press it seems like an appropriate time to pause and review the events that brought it about, the inside story so to speak.

Inspired by the 50th anniversary of the School of Philosophy and Economic Science in Ireland and supported by a very generous private donation the Townley Book Committee held its first meeting in June 2017.

The committee was made up of John O’Regan from Gandon Editions, Michael and Victoria Kavanagh of MVK Architects, Dermot Conway, Eileen Pearson and Sandra O’Neill.

Early inspiration for the project came from the book Monticello in Measured Drawings, an architectural study of the home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A comprehensive set of beautifully detailed conservation drawings of Townley Hall completed by MVK in 2010 were intended to form the architectural core of the publication, and with the addition of supporting chapters, a hardback A4+ format book of about 170 pages was the anticipated outcome.

What was envisaged as a year-long book project would evolve into a four-year marathon culminating in a 280-page publication with a 101,000-word count and over 975 illustrations and photographs. The tenacity and perseverance of the team was tested with what at times seemed like endless challenges.

Townley Hall has frequently been described as Francis Johnston’s domestic masterpiece. Johnston (1760-1829) stands as one of Ireland’s greatest architects, responsible for many of its finest landmark building.

Given the scarcity of written material on Johnston’s career (The last publication on Johnston was a slim paperback published in the 1960s) it seemed to the project team that the book offered an ideal platform on which to produce a detailed catalogue of his work. This would significantly add to the book’s importance not only as a comprehensive history of Townley Hall but also as a definitive study of the life and work of its architect.

This decision would turn out to have major implications for the production timescale and the sheer level of research involved. Francis Johnston was not only an outstanding and innovative architect but also a prolific one with some 160 buildings bearing his name. Our fullest appreciation goes to Michael Kavanagh and the MVK team for the painstaking research in compiling what is certainly the most detailed analysis of Johnston’s life and career to date.

In May 2018 Robert O’Byrne, one of Ireland’s best-known writers on architecture, art and design was commissioned to write the history of Townley Hall and the Townley Balfour family. Given that the narrative on such historical buildings typically ends at the time of construction Robert was asked to write an additional chapter on the house from the time of its completion in the 1790’s up to its acquisition by Trinity College in the 1957. The background to Trinity’s involvement captures the zeitgeist that was Ireland in the 1950’s.

Dr. Michael Telford in his chapter picks up the narrative by describing the Schools developing relationship with Professor Frank Mitchell of TCD who had purchased the house from Trinity in 1967. Dr.Telford, who himself studied under Mitchell, guides us through the Schools engagement with and development of Townley over the decades following its acquisition from Frank Mitchell in the 1980’s.

A chapter by Brendan Kiernan describes in delightful detail the intricacies and ingenuity of construction so characteristic of Francis Johnston and awakens us to subtleties embedded within the very fabric of this wonderful building.

Architectural historian Sean O’Reilly has contributed a wonderful discourse on the iconic monochrome images of Townley Hall from the 1948 editions of Country Life reproduced in the book.

Colum O’Riordan of the Irish Architectural Archive has provided an introduction to the original Townley drawings of Francis Johnston which are reproduced in the book by kind permission of the IAA.

Very Rev. Robert Townley has been a great source of information on the Townley Balfour family and has given us access to original family portraits which are reproduced in the book.

John O’Regan of Gandon Editions has provided invaluable assistance and support throughout the project, resolving input from all the various contributors, processing over 2000 emails, editing 216 batches of material, sorting through some 3000 images, and the list goes on…

Thanks also to our photographers Ross Kavanagh and Gillian Buckley and the many people who contributed images for the project.

Thanks to Dr. Horan for his support and encouragement in the commissioning and publication of this book.

We also express gratitude to all our sponsors and the students who provided invaluable financial support by responding to our pre-publication appeal.

We hope that this School sponsored publication will find its way into many libraries and book collections and provide an enduring resource for students and lovers of architecture everywhere.

Dermot Conway

12th November 2021