A DECADE after his ennoblement in 1711, Thomas, the 1st Baron Mansel of Margam, invited Francis Smith of Warwick to remodel his seat at Margam in a manner that befitted his new-found nobility. Smith pleaded ill health and the great rambling house described last week—a medieval monastery remodelled in the 16th and 17th centuries—remained intact. Thomas died two years later, in 1723, and the male line of the Mansel family came to an end in 1750. Its patrimony consequently passed to the family of Mary Mansel (d. 1735), who had married John Ivory Talbot (d. 1772) of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. The descendants of this match would transform the property.
Their grandson, Thomas Mansel Talbot (1747−1813), marked his majority in 1768 with a Grand Tour. The young man was clearly enthralled with Italy and with Rome in particular, ‘this Queen of Cities’ as he called it. There, in the early 1770s, he spent almost £7,500 acquiring a collection of antique sculpture, works of art, prints, books, furniture, and models of ancient buildings, all of which were shipped to Wales from Livorno on the Tuscany coast.
Unlike his Mansel forebears, Talbot was never greatly interested in public life. He took no active role in politics, nor courted county or national society. As a consequence, almost all that we know of him is derived from family documents, with much set out by one of his direct descendants, Joanna Martin, in The Penrice Letters (1993).
Even before setting off on his Grand Tour, Talbot was familiar with his extensive estates and he was particularly drawn to Penrice on the Gower Peninsula, which he described as ‘the most romantic spot in all the county’. In a letter of 1771, he suggested to his brother that he might ‘leave Margam for Penrice with very little reluctance’ and, soon afterwards, in 1772−73, he commissioned Anthony Keck (COUNTRY LIFE, October 20 and 27, 1988), to design an Italianate villa at the latter. Following his marriage in 1794 to Lady Mary Lucy Fox-Strangways (d. 1855), the couple brought up their children at Penrice, surrounded by many of the artworks that Talbot had purchased in Rome.
Talbot, nevertheless, retained an interest in Margam during the 1770s and early 1780s, when the park and its deer, together with the horses and hounds maintained for hunting, were often in his thoughts. Paradoxically, however, it was Talbot’s love of hunting that led him to spend long periods during the 1780s at Grateley in Hampshire, not least as part of an informal association ‘for the promotion of gambling, horse-racing and drunkenness’.
One element of the Margam estate that seems to have captured Talbot’s close interest from a very early stage was its celebrated collection of citrus trees. The origins of this collection are not proven, but it was certainly in existence by 1711 and a gardener’s catalogue of 1727 lists more than 70 plants. The improved winter housing of these delicate fruits was more of a priority for Talbot than any serious consideration of the residence itself. Hence, as early as 1780, William Emes —then engaged by Talbot on the parkland at Penrice—presented designs for the park at Margam, including ‘finished Drawings for the intended Orangerie’. Talbot rejected these proposals and later asked Anthony Keck to produce a fresh design for an orangery alone. Preparations were finally in hand in 1786, with the principal building work carried out in 1787−90 by William Gubbings, earlier employed as the master mason at Penrice.
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