VERNON MOUNT, CO. CORK:
A NEO-CLASSICAL GEM IN JEOPARDY
By the Knight of Glin & Donough Cahill
Set on the shores of a great natural harbour, the city of Cork emerged as a prosperous manufacturing and trading centre in the latter part of the 18th century. It’s distilling, brewing, textile and milling industries thrived from the close availability of raw materials from the Munster agricultural sector whilst its butter market was so successful that it ranked as the largest exporter of butter in Europe. The city’s prosperity was also driven by a successful manufacturing sector involved in tanning, candle making and glass production. Cork’s role as a trading centre accelerated in the 1770s with the onset of the American War of Independence. This conflict brought fleets of warships and merchant-men into the city’s port for provisioning before their departure for England, the colonies or the West Indies.
Following the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the ensuing peace in the Americas, the port’s prosperity continued for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars but went into sharp decline after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The bankers and merchants of Cork who prospered during this period built a series of magnificent villas and demesnes overlooking the River Lee and Cork harbour. Amongst these were Woodhill, Dunkettle and Lota Beg which were built by the English architect Abraham Hargrave I (1755-1808). Other houses included Fota, which was built to the designs of Sir Richard Morrison (1767-1849), and Lota and Tivoli, which were designed or were influenced by the Italian architect Davis Ducart (c. 1735 - c. 1785). A little further away to the south of the city on an elevated site with panoramic views of Cork and the Lee estuary, is an extraordinary suburban villa said by Bence-Jones to have been built c. 1784 by Sir Henry Browne Hayes (1762-1832) a scion of glass making and distilling businesses. Hayes called his new villa Vernon Mount, a name that derives from the enthusiasm for George Washington and the American War of Independence which was so much admired in Ireland. In the same vein as the American colonies, Ireland also desired its legislative independence and free trade with the rescinding of the Navigation Acts.
This American nomenclature can also be found at Belcamp in Dublin where Cork-man Sir Edward Newenham, an admirer and correspondent of Washington, built a monument to commemorate Washington and his victories at Lexington and Concord. Another example is at Roxborough, County Galway, where Colonel Persse built a bridge commemorating Washington and also named his seaside house at New Quay on Galway Bay Mount Vernon, after the president’s famous house on the Potomac. Hayes’ new villa was by any standard in Ireland extremely unusual. It stands two-storeys over basement level and is distinguished for the curvilinear elegance and subtlety of design of its façades and for the sophistication of its planning and decorative interiors. It has a two-storey curved entrance front with symmetrical convex bows on either side and is flanked by serpentine walls one of which incorporates cellars and a dovecot. The entrance door (badly damaged by burglars several years ago) is a fine tripartite Ionic composition in limestone, capped by a giant semicircular fanlight.
Inside the house, the staircase hall is heated by an elegant cast iron stove in the form of an urn set in a niche and the other rooms still retain their plain but elegant marble and wooden chimney pieces. The reception rooms are decorated by swagged friezes and one room has a shallow dome with garlands and classical plaques. The elegant cantilevered stone staircase retaining its original neo-Classical wrought-iron balustrade ornamented with alternating paterae and urns and is lighted by an arched window. Beneath the first flight is an oval lunette. This arrangement is also found in other Cork houses such as Newmarket Court and Doneraile. These sweeping cantilevered staircases in the Cork area are associated with the architect Abraham Hargrave I and are found at other Cork mansions designed by him such as Castle Hyde, Lota Beg and Hoddersfield.
Hargrave, however, did not arrive in the Cork area until 1791 when he superintended the erection of St. Patrick’s Bridge by the architect and engineer Michael Shanahan. This confusingly leads one to wonder whether Vernon Mount was built as early as 1784, as mentioned by Bence-Jones. A later date is supported by the fact that the house is advertised in the Cork Courier of December 10th, 1794, announcing ‘a new house Vernon Mount to be let, with from 160 acres of meadows, lawns, shruberries etc.’ The house is described as being ’finished in a superb style, with painted ceilings, elegant chimney pieces, grates’. If this is so, Abraham Hargrave could be its architect and it’s pared down interior detailing and shallow Soane-like ceilings would seem to us more likely to date from the early 1790s rather than the old suggestion of about seven years earlier. The staircase leads up to one of the most original features of the house, the oval landing or atrium with its series of eight marblised Corinthian columns which are interspersed with seven doors painted with tromp l’oeil niches with classical statues and urns painted by the Cork artist Nathaniel Grogan (c. 1740-1807). These niche doors lead to bedrooms and a service staircase. The coving below the atrium’s shallow dome is also delicately painted with acanthus and caryatids.
Nathaniel Grogan was a contemporary of the internationally famous artist James Barry and had served with the army in the Americas and the West Indies. While in Philadelphia in 1777, an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Ledger touted his services in ‘Sign and ornamental painting, with pencil work in general’. On his return to Cork at the end of the American War, he specialised in topographical views and the manners and customs of the Irish peasantry, very much in the manner of Dutch 17th century painters. His most important work at Vernon Mount includes one of the very few surviving ceiling paintings on canvas executed in Ireland in the late eighteenth century. This decoration in the drawing room ceiling is somewhat in the style of Angelica Kauffmann and depicts in the centre of an octagonal frame Minerva throwing away the spears of war, possibly commemorating the cessation of the American War of Independence. The elaborately coved scheme around this central picture is delicately handled and features lozenge shaped panels with mythological figures including angels, Ceres with acanthus, bell flowers and vine leaves surrounding roundels that enclose prancing centaurs. The corner pendentive panels are painted with further acanthus scrolls that have urn shaped finials. In all, a delicate, well-handled composition.
In the 1780s or ‘90s, Grogan produced a small oil of a scene in the grounds at Vernon Mount depicting a woodland glen with a romantic gothic ruin. This painting was one in a series of four small oils that featured the Entrance Gates to Tivoli with the Temple of Vesta in the background; The Gothic Temple at Tivoli; and a View of the Old Blackrock Castle which is in the collection of the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. All in all, the plan, the curved elevations, the staircase, the oval atrium, the decoration and the original setting must make Vernon Mount unique in the history of the Irish villa and is a building of national importance. However, its current condition belies its significance as Vernon Mount is now an ‘At Risk’ building in very great danger of becoming another lost Irish house. Since the 1950s, when Vernon Mount was purchased by the Cork and Munster Motorcycle Club, it has been in decline. On acquiring the house, the motorcycle club built a motor-cross race track around it stripping much of the parkland’s character. However, the Club did find a use for the house which they kept in good condition before selling it in the 1990s to a consortium of developers led by the San Diego based IT entrepreneur Jonathon Moss and his colleague in Cork, Olaf Maxwell. An initial planning application by the consortium to re-develop the house and its grounds as a hotel was refused by Cork County Council. In its decision, the Council described the proposals as ‘a gross over-development of the site’ that would ‘be seriously detrimental to the setting, scale and character of a listed building’.
Since that time Vernon Mount has been in a state of limbo with a standoff existing between the developers and Cork County Council. On the one hand, the consortium aspires to re-develop the site whilst, on the other hand, the lands have been zoned for use as Active Open Space in which there is a ‘general presumption against development’. Prior to recent efforts to undertake holding-repairs, Vernon Mount had declined to the point where there were holes in its roof, its gutters and down-pipes were broken and the windows throughout the house were smashed. The Irish Georgian Society has been campaigning for a number of years for action to be taken to prevent further deterioration yet it took the selection of Vernon Mount for the World Monuments Fund List of 100 Most Endangered Sites 2008 before minimal repairs were undertaken.
It is not known what impact years of neglect have had on Nathaniel Grogan’s paintings or on the remainder of the house. Both the Irish Georgian Society and Cork County Council have failed to get access in spite of meeting on site with representatives of the owners – the key tends to get misplaced or lost! Given its condition, it is likely that there is a significant amount of water damage with wet rot throughout and that the upper floor has been particularly badly affected. This places the Grogan paintings in the first floor oval hall at particular risk whilst, in the face of such total neglect, the condition of Grogan’s ceiling painting of Minerva causes great concern. This article attempts to document Vernon Mount’s unique architectural importance and it is hoped that it will draw Cork County Council’s attention to the plight of the house and urge it to take firm action in implementing its powers to secure the future of this important Irish building.
Who was the builder Sir Henry Browne Hayes? Henry Browne Hayes was the son of a successful merchant and industrialist with interests in brewing, milling and glass works. In 1786, he married Elizabeth Smyth of Ballynatray on the Blackwater near Youghal - we have suggested that Vernon Mount was built in the early 1790s some time after their wedding. In 1790, Hayes rose to the position of Sheriff of Cork City and, in that same year, was knighted by the Lord Lieutenant. His wife, Elizabeth, died young in 1794 and it is after her death that the story heightens: In 1797, Hayes placed himself at the centre of the most notorious marital scandal of the period having abducted the wealthy Quaker heiress, Mary Pike with a fortune said by some to amount to £20,000 and by others to £80,000. Pike was staying at nearby Woodhill, the seat of Cooper Penrose, the Quaker, merchant and art connoisseur. Having brought her to Vernon Mount against her will, Hayes forced her into a sham marriage at gun point though was unable to consummate the marriage - Lord Chancellor Clare put it with typical bluntness ‘the cock would not fight’! Pike was rescued and subsequently put up an award of £500 for the capture of Henry Hayes. Having spent some years lying low, Hayes is said to have asked his barber to inform on him and gain the award. He was sent to trial for abduction where he was found guilty and sentenced to hang for his crime. This sentence was commuted to transportation for life to the penal colony at Botany Bay. His journey to Australia was not without adventure as he bribed Captain Richard Brooks of the Atlas to be allowed various privileges and to be accompanied by his servant.
Despite his ostensibly harsh sentence, Hayes contrived to live in considerable luxury overlooking Sydney harbour where he built Vaucluse House, later to become the home of the distinguished Irish-Australian politician W.C. Wentworth, who remodelled the house. Vaucluse would later become the first property of the Australian Historic Houses Trust. This Australian connection makes Vernon Mount of particular Irish-Australian interest, especially as so many Irish felons of the period were transported to the new colony from Cork. Hayes was later pardoned and returned to Ireland in 1812 in the same ship as ‘General’ Joseph Holt of the United Irishmen. When the two arrived back in Ireland, Cox's Irish Magazine commented: 'These two eminent gentlemen have arrived from Botany Bay. It is singular enough that the two were transported for the Pike business, Sir Henry for stealing a pike, and the General for bestowing pikes.’ Hayes died in May 1833 and is buried in a vault in Christchurch in South Main Street, Cork.