A contemporary and, on occasion, the rival of Sir Christopher Wren, William Talman was perhaps England’s most distinguished architect of the country house during the late 17th century. He is principally important for introducing to domestic English architecture a sense of scale and drama informed by the European Baroque, especially by the buildings of the court of Louis XIV.

His work extended to the creation of rich interior designs with large-scale cycles of paintings. Such schemes were already known in English palace design, but Talman introduced them on the grand scale to the country house. A contemporary and, on occasion, the rival of Sir Christopher Wren, William Talman was perhaps England’s most distinguished architect of the country house during the late 17th century.

He is principally important for introducing to domestic English architecture a sense of scale and drama informed by the European Baroque, especially by the buildings of the court of Louis XIV. His work extended to the creation of rich interior designs with large-scale cycles of paintings. Such schemes were already known in English palace design, but Talman introduced them on the grand scale to the country house.

Career

The second son of minor gentry, William Talman was born at West Lavington, a Wiltshire village close to the family’s small estate of Eastcott Manor. Little is known of his early life, or of his introduction to architecture. His first recorded compositions were executed only during his thirties. As well as working on St Anne’s Church, Soho, with Wren, these early projects appear chiefly to have comprised modest private houses.

Talman’s great breakthrough came in 1687, when William Cavendish, later 1st Duke of Devonshire, appointed him architect to the remodelling of the south-facing garden façade of Chatsworth. For sheer splendour, the elevation was without precedent within the realms of country-house design. Conceived for an influential Whig nobleman on the eve of the Glorious Revolution, it reflected the Baroque magnificence of the contemporary royal residence at Greenwich, and the palaces of Paris and Rome.

By 1689, Talman was of sufficient standing to be appointed Comptroller of the King’s Works and Superintendent of the Royal Gardens. Both posts were to bring direct involvement with the remodelling of the palace and grounds at Hampton Court; more than £80,000 was lavished upon the gardens alone during his period of office. Having overseen the decoration of suites of state rooms at Chatsworth and Burghley, replete with fine panelling and painted ceilings, in 1699, Talman, and not his superior, Christopher Wren, was given the task of completing the new state apartments for William III.

Graced with this stamp of royal favour, at the turn of the 18th century, Talman’s country-house practise continued to expand; in addition to many smaller projects, more substantial commissions included Dyrham Park, executed for William Blathwayt, William III’s Secretary of State. That Talman’s schemes for Castle Howard, Welbeck and Haughton met with less success can perhaps be attributed to his infamously difficult temperament.

Certainly, his rival, the playwright turned architect John Vanbrugh, did not hesitate to claim that a great number of patrons had suffered ‘vexation and disappointment’ at the hands of the designer. Vanbrugh was to replace Talman at Castle Howard, and, with the death of William III in 1702, in his official position as Comptroller of the Works.

The Collector

Talman’s work was much informed by an extensive collection of architectural drawings and prints: ‘the most valuable Collection of Books, Prints, Drawings &c., as is in any one person’s hands in Europe, as all the artists in Towne well know’, as he described it in 1713. Talman himself does not appear to have journeyed abroad, and the collection was much indebted to the foreign travels of his son, John. It also included the majority of architectural designs produced by Inigo Jones and John Webb, and the former’s corpus of works by Palladio.

Passing to John Talman on the event of his father’s death in 1719, these were the drawings that later would be of such importance to Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Burlington, and the architects of the Palladian revival. Volumes from the collection still survive at the Courtauld Institute, London, and the Ashmolean, Oxford, stamped with Talman’s device.

Chatsworth House

What to look for

The south façade of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, was begun in 1687. Closely supervised by the architect, it replaced the garden front of a battlemented Elizabethan residence and provided the 4th Earl (later the 1st Duke) of Devonshire with a formal apartment of state reception rooms.

Talman’s design, ‘so fair and August, that it look’d like a Model of what might be done in after Ages’, was to prove highly influential. Talman’s elevation was originally linked to the garden by twin flights of curving stairs. They were replaced by Sir Jeffry Wyattville in the early 19th century

1. The celebrated sequence of giant Ionic pilasters serves to link the levels of the façade. Their arrangement also articulates the disposition of the state apartments on the upper level

2. A Classical balustrade and monumental urns replace the battlemented parapets conventional on great houses. The particular arrangement here closely parallels that found at Vaux-le-Vicomte, which was begun in 1658

3. Carved stags’ heads and twisted serpents allude to the Cavendish family. The motto, ‘Cavendo tutus’, advises ‘safety with caution’

4. The tripartite composition owes much to John Webb’s King Charles Building at Greenwich, then part of an uncompleted royal palace