History and design
The Orangery at Margam was built between 1787 and 1793 to house a large collection of orange, lemon and citron trees inherited by Thomas Mansel Talbot together with the Margam Estate and the now vanished Margam House from his Mansel forebears. It is listed Grade I as one of the finest classical buildings in Wales.
The Orangery is the dramatic and magnificent centrepiece to the Gardens. Designed in 1787 by Anthony Keck, it is of regular classical composition, magnificently ornamental in appearance and superbly functional in design. Aligned east-west and at 327 feet in length, it is the longest Orangery in Britain.
Built at a cost of £16,000, it is of local Pyle sandstone, with Sutton stone from the former mansion used for the rear. Specialist craftsman were brought in but most of the labour was provided from within the estate.
The main body of the Orangery is lit by twenty-seven tall round-headed windows surrounded by deeply carved, vermiculated, rusticated stones which contrast with the smooth stone above and in the end pavilions. The five central windows stand slightly forward of the main building, a pedimented pavilion of smooth faced ashlar successfully terminates the long building at either end, each with a triple-lighted Venetian window on the south front and Venetian door on the end. The back of the building was plain except for double doors for carrying the trees in and out.
The main body of the Orangery where the trees spent the winter months occupies 275 feet of its length. The building is narrow, only 30 feet wide so the light from the tall windows can reach the whole interior. The Orangery was heated by coal fires with chimneys set into the back wall. From May to October, the plants were taken out via the high rear entrance and placed around the fountain in the garden.
The west, or Library, pavilion was elaborately decorated, the fireplace of marble, and the walls ornamented with elaborate plasterwork The less decorated east pavilion housed marble statues and busts. Of the original collection one piece only remains in the Orangery today, the over-life-size statue of the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus.
Building the Orangery
In 1786, work began in Thomas Mansel Talbot’s quarry at Pyle, raising and working the stone which was to be used in building the Orangery.
By the Spring of 1787 preparations were in hand at Margam itself where labourers were digging the foundations and work continues relentlessly week by week and month by month. In the Spring of 1788 the window frames were fixed in position and by September the tilers were slating the roof and the lead had arrived for pipes and gutters; the window frames were being painted and the plasterer was at work on the carving and plastering. By the end of the year, the scaffolding was being taken down.
In January 1789 bricks had arrived for the fireplaces and heating flues to the back walls and by the Spring of 1789 the final phase of building had been reached, walls were plastered and in the summer months the glass arrived for the windows which were then painted.
By the beginning of 1790 locks had been fitted to doors and although the marble fireplace was not installed until 1793, the Orangery was virtually complete in 1790.
As the building of the Orangery progressed, the old Margam House which stood immediately behind it was demolished. A traveller who visited Margam in 1796 commented on the recent removal of the old house which had brought into view the abbey church, the ruins of the Chapter House and Infirmary and enhanced the setting of the new Orangery.
Men and materials
In the building of Margam Orangery, the initial decision, the site and the necessary wealth were provided by Thomas Mansel Talbot. The design was the work of Anthony Keck from Gloucestershire. William Gubbins was the master mason who superintended the raising of the stone at the quarry and oversaw the progress of the building and the masons who worked under him, the names of whom are not known nor do we know how many worked on carving the seven hundred intricately worked blocks and to dress the smooth faced ashlar.
The labourers who wheeled and dug remain anonymous, they were supervised by John Crook, the gardener who had come from Wiltshire to take charge of the gardens at Margam. The Crook family were to feature greatly in the gardens of both Margam and Penrice with a 3 further generations of Crook working here. John Crook (problably the son) was head gardener at Margam in the 1830's. George Crook (probably his grandson) was head gardener in the 1860's. (information thanks to Dr Seth Crook)
Edward Lewis and William Evan were carpenters; John Jenkins the blacksmith; Issac Thomas split lathes and William Harry supplied lime and Rees Howell found animal hair for mixing into the plaster. Specialist craftsmen, John Whitcom the tiler and James Millard the plasterer and his assistants Thomas Hale and Samuel Kemish were brought from England.
Most of the materials were locally obtained but heavy timber, lead for casting, roofing slates and window glass had to be shipped from Bristol and Gloucester to the small harbours at Newton, Aberavon and Neath in sloops such as the Nancy, under her master George Morgan.
Records of expenses were meticulously kept by the steward to the estate, Hopkin Llewellyn. The surviving account is not complete but records some £1,600 as being paid out. Such a sum however takes no account of the hidden assets which the estate provided such as the wood, sand, earth stone and the local workforce necessary to complete the Orangery construction.
The Orangery in later years
Interest in the cultivation of Orange trees continued for several decades after the building of the Orangery. The 19th Century saw the introduction of new plants into Europe for hot-house and garden cultivation and as rare trees and shrubs were planted, Margam Park became famous for these new specimens rather than for the historic collection of citrus trees.
A collection of orange trees was maintained at Margam right up to the outbreak of the second world war when the Orangery was requisitioned for military use and was occupied by American forces. The trees had to be left outside and failed to survive the winter weather.
After the end of he war a new collection of citrus trees was formed at Margam and using this collection as the nucleus, the present owners continue to build up a collection of the various citrus trees in cultivation and specimens can be viewed today within the Orangery.
After two centuries the building was in need of extensive restoration. To restore the whole Orangery to its original purpose would have been ideal, but social and economic conditions have changed. Part of the building was restored to fulfil its eighteenth-century function and some additions made as unobtrusively as possible to enable the Orangery to be put to a wide variety of uses such as a concert room, conference centre or banqueting hall.
The completely restored Orangery was opened by Her Majesty the Queen during her Silver Jubilee visit in June 1977. Thus an eighteenth century ornamental building was brought more fully into a twentieth century Margam Park and it continues to be used in this twenty-first century as a prestigious venue hosting a variety of activities.