Chapter 15. JOHN VERGE
Early Australian Architectural History
 
OF necessity we must keep retracing our steps in time if we are to see all
aspects of the work of the men who made the 1830s so architecturally rich.

If we go back to 1832 we find the records suddenly spotted with the name
of John Verge. He was an architect of considerable importance, and in that year
his work was honoured by a leading article in the Sydney Gazette:

We have seen a drawing of the plan and elevation of the shop and premises now in
course of erection by Mr Samuel Lyons at the comer of George Street and Charlotte
Place, and we must say, it promises to be by far the most spacious and superb building
in the town. For elegance of design and essential convenience as a family dwelling
and a place of business, it will be unrivalled by any edifice we know in the colony;
and from the very conspicuous part of the town it is to-occupy, it will form a striking
ornament to the capital of Australia. We consider it only an act of justice to add that
it is the design of Mr VERGE, an architect who has done much for the embellishment
of Sydney and its environs. To his judicious taste we are indebted for the elegance
of most of the villas on Woolloomooloo Hill, some of which are worthy of the
suburbs of London.'

The paper was too fulsome, for the design of Lyons's store was a rather dull essay
in late Regency style.

Samuel Lyons was a great merchant of the day who on 4th January 1834
advertised in the Sydney Gazette that he had then moved into the new premises
that Verge had designed for him. The Charlotte Place mentioned in the leading
article is now known as Grosvenor Street.

It will be noticed from the quotation above that Verge by 1832 had built a
number of buildings near Woolloomooloo, and therefore he was already very well
established in practice. His professional activities from 1830 to 1837 are known in
detail, for his account book for those years has been preserved. It is extremely
unfortunate that similar documents belonging to other architects have not come to
light, because Verge's account book, though obscure in some particulars, is nevertheless a
splendid record of his commissions, which, by brief analysis of the list,
can be put into reasonably accurate chronological order.



Of his many villas on Woolloomooloo Hill, Tusculum in Manning Street,
Potts Point, remains and for a long time served as a private hospital. It has been
much altered by additions and the closing in of verandas, but the main rooms
were used as hospital wards and were little disturbed. The apartments are generously
proportioned, the former drawing-room being quite adequate for a ten-bed
ward. The house built in 1831 for A. B. Spark, an important man of his day,
although alterations were made on completion of the house to suit Bishop
Broughton, who would seem to have been its first occupant. Tusculum is rectangular
on plan, with verandas supported by cast-iron columns at their edges
right round two floors. The veranda ceilings are more than usually ornate, being of
panelled cedar that looks very well against the finely dressed stone walls.



Quite close to Tusculum, at Rockwall Crescent, is the well-preserved Regency
house that Verge designed for John Bushby; it is still known as Rockwall. The
design shows Verge in his most restrained and pleasing mood, although the
columned porch seems to overpower the flanking verandas in scale.
Near Rockwall, but much lower down the contours of the Porn Point hill, is
Elizabeth Bay House, still enjoying its superb view across Sydney Harbour to
Manly, six miles away. The Honourable Alexander Macleay, Colonial Secretary
of New South Wales, no less, commissioned Verge for the job, but this is not
surprising since the list of Verge's clients looks like a Who's Who of the thirties. He
was consulted by most of the important people of the day, his reputation growing
with each new design. Even the great W. C. Wentworth employed him as architect
for eight small speculative houses in Sussex Street, Sydney.

Elizabeth Bay House shows Verge at his best and worst as a designer. The main
elevation is a simple Regency front, whilst the sides, less ambitious but perhaps
more pleasing, have large curved bays running through the two floors.
Behind the good, clean line of the parapet is a low-pitched slate roof, which, even
when seen from the high ground above the house, is unobtrusive. The general
impression given by the design is of quietness and good taste, the severely stuccoed
walls being relieved only by the somewhat stiff mouldings run in the plaster work
and the elaboration of the entrance. The rear of the house is unstudied and lacks the
neatness of the other elevations.



The interior has some splendid rooms, the stair W being one of the finest,
and perhaps the best, of such things in Australian Colonial architecture. Elliptical
on plan, the stair and its upper landings sweep completely round the curved walls.
The doors opening into the hall are elaborately framed in Doric pilasters and
entablatures in beautifully worked cedar, whilst the brackets under the landings
and the wrought-iron balustrade are rich, but not offensively so. The stair itself is
a stone geometrical stair getting natural light from above by a lantern-light in the
domed ceiling, the surface of which is covered with shallow panels. The gallery
that gives access to the upper rooms and opens into the stair hall through tall arches
imparts a wonderful sense of spaciousness, and this, combined with the masterly
geometry of the stair hall and first-class craftsmanship leaves nothing to be desired
in Verge's best essay in interior design.

The high windows on the northern front give beautiful light and superb
views to main apartments, but the box windows, 14 inches high, on the
south front give no view and very little light to the former servants' rooms, which
are cramped, mean, and awkwardly planned. The difference between rooms for
"the Quality" and for the servants is most painfully marked in this house; added to
this the layout of the house is uninspiring, for Verge was, unfortunately, an
extremely poor planner. Though he could conceive in the grand manner the
principal parts of a building, he seemed to tire and falter when trying to coordinate
all the parts into a whole.



Even in minor work he got himself into unnecessary planning difficulties. In
1832 he prepared a plan for a house for James Busby, who was about to take up
'his appointment as British Resident in New Zealand (93). Although this was intended
to be a timber house, pre-cut for shipment, it was full of waste space,
which would have involved, as a consequence, the transport of a great deal of
unnecessary building material. The inconvenient placing of the rooms is self-evident,
and the multitude of cupboards and store-rooms show that Verge did not know
what to do with the surplus space caused by his awkward room arrangement.
The remoteness of the kitchen from the dining-room cannot truly be blamed on
him, for this is the usual Colonial custom. Indeed, Verge added a refinement in the
form of a covered way from the kitchen to the house proper. In many plans of that
day there was no protection at all between the kitchen and main wings.
Verge's letter to Busby sent with this plan is worth reading. The somewhat
apologetic language of the second paragraph makes one supect that Verge himself
was not satisfied:

Sydney, 8th. Nov. 1832.

Sir,
I have sent you a Design for a house intended for your residence in New Zealand,
which I hope will meet with your approbation. It is to be framed in Sydney, weather
boarded outside, and lath and plaster inside.
In this Plan I have studied economy as much as convenience, as everything will
be very plain; the rooms, Stores, and closets may appear numerous, but they are
small; and I think you could not dispense with any of those conveniences in a
Country like New Zealand.
The whole expense of Erecting and completing the same (if by Contract in Sydney)
I estimate at £592 15s. 4d., Five hundred and Ninety two Pounds 15s. 4d.
With a view to reduce this Estimate, I have enquired of several Gentlemen who
have establishments in New Zealand, if it would be possible to get a portion of the
Materials there at a cheaper rate than in Sydney; the result of that enquiry is that you
cannot depend on getting any part of them there, unless you take men with you to
procure them.
Under these circumstances, I think it would be better to procure all materials
here, more especially as the Building Timbers which are used here, are more durable
than any Timber that I have seen from that Country.
I am, &c. - J. VERGE.



Busby, too, was not happy about the plan and later had Ambrose Hallen alter
it, although from what we know of the latter's work we are not encouraged to
think any great improvements were made! However, the house did turn out to be
very beautiful in appearance.

Besides town houses, Verge designed some country houses, two of them quite
important works. Denham Court is to be found south of Sydney on the spur of
land which thrusts out above the village of Ingleburn towards Bunburry-Curran
Creek. From here, to the northward, can be seen Macquarie Field House on its
20-foot escarpment. Between Liverpool and Campbelltown the high ground runs
parallel to George's River, and on every spur of land pointing eastwards may be
found a Colonial house or the foundations of one that formerly existed.

With an eye for country, the owners of the early houses naturally chose the most
commanding sites, and this part of the landscape provides superb settings for the
houses, which, from their high positions, enjoy limitless views over almost virgin
country towards the coast. Behind them, to the westward, is the beginning of the
Cowpastures country, so that the map is thick with the names of historic houses
and towns.

The original Denham Court was a single-storey house, but in 1832-3 the owner,
Captain Richard Brooks, enlarged it by adding a two-storied wing, with two
flanking bow-fronted one-storey room. This front is a small replica, at least in its
main features, of Denham Court in Middlesex in England, which was erected by
the Bowyer family in 1670. Captain Brooks's "visits to General Bowyer in England,
no doubt, made him familiar with Denham Court Mansion", and he was so
impressed by its architecture that he decided to reproduce it in the antipodes.' We
may presume thst the descriptions the captain gave Verge were verbal only, for
that would account for the differences that occur between the two Denham Courts
on opposite sides of the world.



The Australian Denham Court (89, 94) shows Regency influence with the
familiar stucco walls, neat trim lines, and the simple shallowly recessed panels
projecting porch and the surrounds to the french windows are of stone, but these
have long since been painted over. These french windows and the main door all open
into the large living-hall which extends across the width of the house between the
two bow-fronted wings. This room is 14 feet high and is generously proportioned,
with a fme geometrical stair along the west wall (95). The balusters of the railing
to this stair are simple and square, and the design owes its main effect to the
semicircular sweep of the handrails and the foot of the stair. The floor is paved with
flagstones, each 18 inches square, laid diagonally in the room: The doors into the
living-hall are much larger than is normal, being 3 feet 3 inches wide and 7 feet
4 inches high and set in arched recesses 10 feet 2 inches high (96). The glass doors
in other parts of the house are even taller. All the joinery, as is to be expected, is of
cedar finely detailed and beautifully worked. The reveals of the ground-floor
windows are formed of the usual hinged panelling that opens out to form defensive
shutters.



Denham Court, without its former estate, still exists in beauty, lovingly cared
for, but showing the shakes and agues of age.



It is interesting to compare the two drawings of the east front of the court. One
is a technical scale elevation, and the other a sketch impression, both forms of
drawing that have a place in architectural draughtsmanship.

Slightly to the west of the court is Denham Court chapel (97). Again this is a
self-conscious, but not very accurate, copy of the church at Denham in England.
It also was designed by Verge and shows him in his Gothic mood. Like most of
the architects of the day he was uncomfortable in this deliberately imitative style.
Verge's planning might have been weak, but he had a bold command of fine
architectural massing as long as he worked within the lines of Classical
tradition. However, when he attempted Gothic work insincere sentimentality
seemed to destroy his natural self-confidence.



Mrs Brooks would seem to have been the instigator of the project for the chapel,
because the items in the account book refer to her, or to her executor. Sketches,
working drawings, and personal expenses were the subject of a charge for
19s. in 1835. Later the executors of the estate were sent a bill for £31 3s. "for
making contract and superintending the erection of the chapel". The main works
for Captain Brooks, the "alterations &c. to Denham Court", were the subject of
a charge of only £57. which seems disproportionately low.

It is often difficult to determine just what services were included in Verge's
charges. For instance, the fees for Elizabeth Bay House totalled £100, superintendence
apparently not being included, whereas the owner of Tusculum, a house not
much smaller in dimensions than Elizabeth Bay House, was charged for "design
and supervision" £70 only. It is interesting to note that although he submitted his
complete bill to Alexander Macleay for Elizabeth Bay House in 1835, Verge
received only EIW at that time. For the remainder of his money he had to wait
seven years." This strange inconsistency seems to run through allVerge's charges.
In 1835, for surveying the ceiling of Sydney College and getting a
leak fixed he received £5, and yet the next year for designing a Classical portico
at the same college he received the sum of £8. If a leak is worth £5, a charge of
only £8 seems hopelessly inadequate for the portico which, large and imposing,
he added to Edward Hallen's earlier work at the college. When he charged £6 1S.
for "Gothic Church at Bungonia, plan, specification and agreement", we can
only wonder about that odd shilling. Plans, elevations, sections, details, specification
and two estimates of Bong Bong Church by no means impoverished the
trustees of the church, for they paid Verge £8 for those not inconsiderable
hours.



Perhaps the most attractive bargain was gained by a gentleman named Charles
H. Chambers, Esquire, who paid Verge only £1, 1S. for a "pencilled sketch for
a Castellated Privy': a job which we feel would have been quite cheap even at
double the price.

In the Sydney Gazette of 4th April 1832 there appeared an advertisement
by the Commissioners of St James's Church, Sydney, inviting tenders from
"Parties desirous of undertaking the proposed Enlargement of this Church". Mr
W. G. Verge, the great-grandson of John Verge, remarked to the present author
apropos of the difficulties of historical study that when things went well with
buildings the records seldom, if ever, referred to the architect. However, when
walls cracked and roofs leaked, architects' names were prominent in the complaints
that were immediately, and often circumstantially, set down on paper. The
enlargement of St James's Church comprised the building of vestries at the east end
(25,26), and, since the roof leaked, we know that John Verge designed the extension.
Nowhere is there any praise for the architect for his additions to Greenway’s
church, which were so skilled that generations of people, including architects, have
been deceived into believing that Verge's additions were part of the original. No,
the roof leaked, and so the Colonial Secretary wrote to J. Verge, Esq., Architect,
telling him of an inspection by the Colonial Architect "of the Roof of the Vestry
to St James' Church under your Superintendence and pointing out
the insufficient manner in which the work has been performed, the rain having
penetrated and spread over the ceiling and will probably cause it to fall."16
A curious sidelight on this tiny incident in history is provided by the famous
account book, which, as a general rule, meticulously records all the financial
transactions in regard to any particular work. In most cases the final method of
payment is neatly noted as being by currency, draft, a bi! on a London commercial
house, or whatever system was employed.

Under the heading Commissioners to St James's
Church, we see the line, "To sheet of detail drawings for proposed additions",
but the money column is blank. It seems fait to ask if after the disaster of the leak
Verge had the courage to claim a fee.

It is unfortunate that this should have happened to such a fine piece of architecture.
If, instead of mutilating so many of our early buildings in the name of
"additions" and "improvements", poor designers could have carried out their
alterations with but one-tenth of the refinement and feeling that Verge was able
to infuse into the design of the St James's vestries, then the long tale of the destruction
of an art could have been turned into a much happier story, and Australia
would have been richer thereby.

The vestries, as Verge designed them, were simple rectangular rooms, quite
different in their interior aspect from the queerly shaped present ones. The intrusion
of the semicircular chancel into the vestry space was part of the extensive
alterations made to the church in 1894.' The architectural treatment of the exterior
of Verge's addition, with its engaged pilasters and formal entablature of stone, is
rich in the accepted tradition of true Georgian, rather than Colonial, architecture.
The small porches (go) either side of the vestry block are superb in their restraint,
and are quite as good as Greenway's Classic main porches to the nave. When the
sun is pouring down on to the east end of St James's Church, and every projection
casts a deep shadow, and every shadow sparkles with reflected light, the rightness
of Verge's design sense is completely established.

Some of Verge's remaining work has suffered the usual maltreatment. At
St Scholastica's College at Glebe, good as the buildings are in many ways, may be
seen only the remains, architecturally speaking, of Toxteth House which Verge
designed. Not far away, in Darghan Street, is Lyndhurst, the design of which
forms the subject of the first entry (in 1833) of Verge's account book.
At the south end of Hyde Park, Sydney, Lyons's Terrace was a conspicuous
feature for many years, Verge presumably having designed it, for the name was
that of the Samuel Lyons whose premises in Charlotte Place were mentioned
earlier.

The old Royal Hotel in George Street was considerably altered by Verge, but
his work was burnt down in a spectacular fire in 1840. John Terry Hughes, the
brewer, served as his own architect for the reconstruction, producing a design that
was one of the curiosities of Colonial architecture for ninety years. It was four
floors high, battlemented at the parapet, and had columned verandas up the whole
façade, making an individual and distinctive, if architecturally peculiar, building.
In 1834 Verge designed for W. E. Riley a castellated house intended for the estate
at Raby, but, with Verge's poor Gothicism in mind, we may feel that it is fortunate
that this scheme did not go on. He did a house at the corner of Bent and O'Connell
streets, Sydney, long since destroyed, and a cottage at Maitland for the famous
and competent Edward Denny Day. We may safely presume that Verge did no
more than supply the plans for this latter job, for his fee was only £6, which
would not have allowed for travelling time and expenses.

Verge received £200 for designing and supervising the finest building to come
from his drawing board. This was Camden Park, on which he was engaged over a
period of years. It was designed for William Macarthur, brother to the famous
John, and heir to the sheep kingdom in the Cowpastures, in the midst of which the
house was to be raised.

Verge started the sketch designs in 1831, work progressing so well that by the
middle of 1833 Elizabeth Macarthur was able to write that some apartments were
nearly ready. Some fifty years later large additions were made to the house, but
fortunately they were in the form of a separate wing, which, though attached to
the original work, in no way interferes with its character or setting.

The general air of the house is one of quiet, easy dignity, and pleasing good
taste. The main entrance doors lead into a stone-paved hall of satisfying loftiness
but rather complicated arrangement: to locate the main stair something of a minor
exploration is needed.

As is usual in Verge's designs, the planning of the house, in part, is cramped
and awkward, but in 1833 at his client's request he did include the first authenticated
bathroom in Australia, and so ensured the inclusion of his name in every
account of Australian social evolution. To Verge there was nothing special in this
event, it being all in the day's work to prepare a "working Plan, Elevations and
Section of Alcove for Bathhouse at Camden". However, "Alcove for Bathhouse"
meant just that. Having seen his original plan, I can report that the "alcove" was a
small external pavilion to which the lord and master of Camden Park would
adjourn to sit in a portable tub whilst the appropriate flunkey poured water over
him. This was manifestly a bathhouse and not a bathroom. And despite all the credit
given to Verge in this matter, there is still the tantalizing puzzle of Ambrose Hallen's
possible priority at Roslyn Hall.

The elevations of Camden Park leave nothing to be desired, the main front
being severe yet chaste and, to use a word in its Colonial sense, elegant. Only
Verge's original work has been included in the drawing, the later additions being
omitted (99). A carefully balanced facade with Verge's favourite white stucco
walls, stone porch and window trimming, combined with most satisfactory proportions,
result in a house of such visual excellence that it is always with a feeling of delight
that the beholder sees it on the first, or any subsequent, occasion. The
flanking single-storey wings are more elaborately treated with pilasters, entabla-
tures, aid parapets, which makes them excellent foils to the more simply roofed
central block. As in so many Colonial houses, the floor level is very near ground
level, which gives an air of intimacy with the site that cannot result from a design
with a higher foundation.



All the details are finely studied. The roof although it has overhanging eaves,
has a secret gutter let into the slate surface; the usual ugly eaves gutter is thereby
eliminated and the rain-water downpipes fit neatly and snugly against the wall.
The interior shows the same near care, so that everything is satisfying without
being spectacular (66). All door and window openings have the same type of
architraves as the fireplaces.

The house is in wonderful repair. It has been lived in and loved for more than a
century, and such treatment has put an indefinable stamp of architectural quality
upon it. The gardens are superb and are so well designed that the setting and the
house seem to be one. The garden front has a large columned loggia along its full
length and this, though just a little coarse in some of its details, makes nevertheless,
with the garden, a superb composition (98).

The stone brimming round the windows so closely resembles those at Denham
Court that we can almost hear Verge muttering, "When you've a good thing,
stick to it !" Indeed the general composition, the architectural details and the innate
character of Camden Park and Denham Court are so alike as to reveal a family
origin, in the architectural sense.

An entry in the account book for 11th June 1836 shows that Verge's account
for Camden Park was paid by a set of bills on London, "all honoured".
Some of the additions to the original Macarthur house at EIizabeth Farm,
Parramatta, were designed by Verge, but we cannot now be sure which they were.
Subiaco at Parramatta, and Tempe House, just south of Cook's River bridge, are
also attributed to him, as is Barham in Forbes Street, Darlinghurst, now part of the
Sydney Church of England Grammar School for Girls.

As he progressed in his practice, Verge began to develop interests outside his
profession. He had originally intended to settle on the land and now his old
ambition returned. In October 1837 he appointed a colleague to receive all outstanding
debts owing to him. In 1832 he lived in Bathurst Street, Sydney. In 1838
he was listed as living at Dungog, on the Williams River. He also had a grant on
the Macleay River, the present town of Kempsey being built partly on his land.
During his professional career he was associated with John Bibb, who was later
to be an important architect in his own right. Some authorities maintain that Bibb
was a pupil or a draughtsman in Verge's office. Certainly the two men worked
together on a number of projects and there is still a certain amount of confusion as
to the authorship of some of the buildings with which they were both apparently
concerned. Bibb did not exert his full influence upon Australia's architecture until
many years later, so that he must have been a very young man when Verge was
busy with his many works, which gives credence to the belief that Bibb was a
pupil at the time.

Verge died in July 1861, aged 79 years. He did not practise architecture for
many years, but in the decade of his professional life he contributed a greater
amount of fine work and gave more brilliant colour to the architectural picture of
the Golden Thirties than any other man.



 
This section is based on the excellent book Early Australian Architects and Their Work (Angus & Robertson, Syd, 1954); Herman, Morton, (1901-1983). Illustrated and Decorated by the Author.
 
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