The Orangery in Margam Park was built to house a great collection of orange, lemon and other citrus trees which the Talbots inherited from their Mansel forebears. Nothing is known for certain of the origin of these trees, but legends suggest that they were originally a gift for the crown. As they were being transported, the ship was wrecked on the coast near Margam and the trees claimed by the Mansels.
Travellers who journeyed through Wales at the end of the eighteenth century in search of picturesque beauty, and who published accounts of their tours, noted several versions of the legend. Queen Elizabeth I, Charles I, Charles II’s wife Catherine of Braganza and William III’s Queen Mary all appear in the variations of the story.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the citrus collection numbered about one hundred trees and was housed in several greenhouses in the park. It was the bold design of Thomas Mansel Talbot to build the present Orangery, (327 feet in length), to accommodate the whole collection. In Britain, orange trees need protection from the severity of our winter weather, but in the summer months they can stand outdoors and were used to ornament the formal gardens of the time.
As a building the Orangery is superbly functional; long and narrow with a series of twentyseven tall windows to admit the winter light. The plain back wall contained fireplaces, from which hot air passed through flues. In its centre was the high door through which fully-grown trees could be wheeled into the garden.
A building of such length risked appearing monotonous, but this was avoided by imaginative treatment of the façade. Deeply-worked stone, offset by smooth-faced ashlar, holds light and shadow in the everchanging, strongly emphasised, horizontal lines of the plinth. The band of rusticated vermiculated stone, the matching heights of key-stones, the frieze of triglyphs, and the row of sculptured urns on the skyline all give a sense of unity and harmony. The building ends with pavilions of smooth stone ornamented with delicately carved scrollwork and lit by Venetian windows.
The stone from which the Orangery is built was hewn locally, in Thomas Mansel Talbot’s own quarry at Pyle. The men who dressed the stone worked under the master mason William Gubbings, one of the craftsmen who had been employed earlier on the villa at Penrice under Talbot’s architect Antony Keck.
Detailed accounts kept by Hopkin Llewellyn, the estate Steward, tell the story of the building of the Orangery from 1786 to 1790 and record the assembling of materials. Stone, sand and wood came from Talbot’s own lands and bricks from the copper work’s kilns. Heavy timber, glass and slate came by sea and were unloaded at the small ports of Newton, Taibach and Neath.
Once the roof of the Orangery was in place, work started on plastering the interior. The west pavilion was elaborately ornamented with plasterwork fans, honeysuckle and a frieze of antique lamps and griffins. This room was designed as a library and study. The treatment of the East Pavilion was more restrained and the room was used to display the ancient marbles, statues and busts that Thomas Mansel Talbot had bought in Italy, a collection that remained in Margam until dispersed by auction in 1941. In 1973 when the estate was purchased by Glamorgan County Council, the Orangery was in ruins. Four years later the restoration of this beautiful building had been completed and it was opened by the Queen in her Silver Jubilee Year. Today the function room is used for weddings, conferences and events.