Saturday, 13 August 2016

62 Penrice Castle

62 Penrice – 13 August 2016 (photos: Penrice Castles, Prince Charles visit)

HRH Prince Charles was particularly interested to visit Penrice Castle in July 1998.  Though the ruined 12th century castle is the largest in Gower, his interest was rather in the nearby mansion, built in the late 18th century to the design of Gloucestershire architect Anthony Keck.  The Prince of Wales was there to unveil a commemorative plaque on Cefn Bryn to inaugurate the Gower Way, the 56km linear footpath from Rhossili in the south-west of the peninsula to Penlle’r Castell on Mynydd y Gwair in the upland part of the lordship.  The Gower Society marked its 50th year by embarking on this millennium project, placing marker stones at roughly 1km intervals along the route.

The dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century had enabled the Mansel family to purchase Margam Abbey and its estates, whereupon they chose to live at Margam rather than in Gower, where they owned the Norman castle at Penrice and the Tudor fortified manor house at Oxwich.  But after the estates had passed by marriage to the Talbot family, Thomas Mansel Talbot (1747–1813) felt that Penrice was ‘the most romantic spot in all the county’, and so had a four-storey Georgian mansion built there of Bath stone to Keck’s design between 1773 and 1775.  During this construction the surrounding area was turned into a landscaped park under the direction of a student of Capability Brown, William Emes of Derbyshire, who planted 200 poplars, 60 pines, a variety of fruit trees, and created a man-made lake.  Like his contemporary Thomas Johnes with the Hafod estate near Aberystwyth, Talbot was influenced by the ‘picturesque’, as popularised by the sketching tours of Rev. William Gilpin.  The rear of Penrice mansion has a four-storey curved bay with a fine view across the park towards Oxwich Bay, while on the other side the front entrance porch with two Doric columns stands in the shadow of the ruined Norman castle. 

During Talbot’s ‘Grand Tour’ as a young man, visiting Italy between 1769 and 1773, he had amassed a large collection of paintings, statues, antiquities and furniture.  Twenty-three crates of this collection including marble fireplaces and artworks were shipped from Leghorn in Italy to Mumbles on board the “Eagle” in June 1775, most being destined for Penrice.

Following Talbot’s marriage in 1794, when he was 47, to 17-year-old Lady Mary Fox Strangways, by whom he had one son and seven daughters, the folly known as The Towers was added at the main entrance to the park.  This was constructed to appear of similar date as the ruined 12th century Penrice Castle, though dismissed by Rev. Henry Skrine, author of ‘Two Tours through Wales’ in 1798, as “fictitious fragments of a modern ruin”.  Talbot also used Keck to design the 327-foot long Orangery at Margam, to house varieties of citrus fruits as well as Italian statues.

Later Penrice had two extensions, though both have since been demolished. A large stone-faced wing by William Powell was added to Keck’s house in 1812-17, with much later a further block in 1893-6, and a conservatory by Macfarlane’s of Glasgow, which came to be known as the ‘Crystal Palace’.  That was later moved to the vegetable gardens, before demolition in the 1960s.  The late Georgian wing was demolished in 1967-8 following similar treatment to the 1890s’ block, and the site replaced by a paved rose garden.
Near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, Highgrove House was purchased for the Prince of Wales in 1980 by the Duchy of Cornwall; that country house was also designed by Anthony Keck, although built from 1796 to 1798, later than Penrice.  But Highgrove had suffered a fire in 1893 so that much of the interior had been rebuilt to a different design.  Prince Charles’s interest in Penrice in 1998 was to see the interior, to gain some idea how Highgrove may have appeared before the fire. 

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