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  William Talman (bap. 1650, d. 1719), by Giuseppe Grisoni, c.1718–19 [The Talman Family Group: Talman, left, with (left to right) his son John Talman, his daughter Frances Cokayne, and his wife, Hannah Talman] William Talman (bap. 1650, d. 1719), by Giuseppe Grisoni, c.1718–19 [The Talman Family Group: Talman, left, with (left to right) his son John Talman, his daughter Frances Cokayne, and his wife, Hannah Talman]
Talman, William (bap. 1650, d. 1719), architect and collector, was baptized on 1 December 1650 at St Margaret's Church, Westminster. He was the second son of William Talman (d. 1663) and his wife, Elizabeth, of Eastcott Manor House, near West Lavington in Wiltshire. When his father died in 1663, his elder brother, Christopher, inherited the family estate and William received the leases on three houses in King Street, Westminster. Nothing is known about his early life or training as an architect.

Early career

In 1678 Talman obtained the office of king's waiter in the port of London, probably through the patronage of Henry Hyde, second earl of Clarendon. He shared this office with Thomas Apprice, and surrendered it in favour of his brother-in-law James Tate in 1711. In May 1689 he was appointed comptroller of the king's works, a post he retained until the death of William III in 1702, when in May of that year he was dismissed and John Vanbrugh was appointed in his place. Also in 1689, when Hans Willem Bentinck, first earl of Portland, was appointed superintendent of the royal gardens, Talman was appointed as his deputy with George London. In these two official capacities Talman was largely responsible for the interior decoration of Hampton Court Palace and probably also to some extent for the extensive new gardens.

Talman acquired a property at Thames Ditton in Surrey about 1696, on the opposite side of the River Thames from Hampton Court Palace. Here he began to build himself an elaborate new house and garden. The house was incomplete when Talman lost his place as controller and he sold the property to George London, who completed a much smaller house for himself, probably also to Talman's designs. He went on to purchase property at Ranworth in Norfolk, and in 1718 he purchased the estate of Felmingham in the same county. His marriage to Hannah produced three sons and a daughter. Talman often sent his eldest son, , to the continent on various occasions to purchase material for his burgeoning collection of architectural books, drawings, and prints, which he described in 1713 as ‘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’ (J. Harris, 19, n. 2). The probate inventory drawn up after Talman's death in 1719 also records his collection of marbles, antique sculptures, and chimney-pieces, which has led Howard Colvin to suggest that he may have been commercially involved in their supply (Colvin, ‘The Problem’, 121–2).

Talman was the leading country house architect of the late seventeenth century, responsible for some of the most innovative and influential designs of the period. But the lack of direct documentary evidence about his career has made it very difficult to prove beyond doubt the extent of his work. Recent research into country house archives has now produced hard evidence for Talman's involvement in over thirty houses, though in many cases it is still unclear exactly to which architectural works this evidence refers. Among the earliest works associated with Talman's name are a group of relatively plain Renaissance-style houses. These include: Holywell House, St Albans, built about 1686 for John and Sarah Churchill; Stanstead Park in Sussex, built 1686–90 for Richard Lumley, first earl of Scarbrough; Uppark in Sussex, built about 1690 for Ford Grey, third Lord Grey of Warke and later first earl of Tankerville; and Swallowfield House in Berkshire, built 1689–91 for his early patron, the second earl of Clarendon. Although all these houses were somewhat old-fashioned in style, the only survivor, Uppark, is a magnificent example of its type, which shows great sophistication in its composition and design detail. And the only surviving interior by Talman, in any of these houses, is a small oval vestibule at the centre of the garden front at Swallowfield, which suggests that they may not have been quite so plain or old-fashioned in their original plan form or decoration. Talman later designed two even plainer three-storey houses, Kimberley Park in Norfolk for Sir John Wodehouse and Fetcham Park in Surrey for Arthur Moore. Both have projecting three-window centrepieces topped with pediments, though the former was designed with corner towers and the latter was built with single-storey wings.

Major commissions

By far the most important group of documented commissions by Talman is on an altogether grander scale. At Burghley House in Northamptonshire he had a hand in the important internal remodelling begun for John Cecil, fifth earl of Exeter, in 1682. Talman, who visited in 1688 and was finally paid £200 by the earl's trustees in 1704, was probably responsible for its magnificent new suite of staterooms, including those painted by Antonio Verrio. At Chatsworth House in Derbyshire he designed for William Cavendish, first duke of Devonshire, perhaps his most important work, the grand south front, the first truly baroque façade in England. He also designed the east façade and the unique suite of staterooms approached from the painted great hall and stone staircase. He also added important architectural embellishments to the new gardens laid out by George London, including the Temple of Flora and the west terrace with its elaborate staircase. At Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire, Talman designed the new stables and completed the house for William Blathwayt by the addition of a grand new three-storey façade with a suite of panelled rooms behind. He also designed a magnificent new conservatory, and possibly other architectural elements in the elaborate new water gardens, also laid out by George London between 1691 and 1704. Finally, and distinctly Roman baroque in style, Talman designed the inner courtyard façade at Drayton House in Northamptonshire for Sir John Germain in 1702. Here his alterations included the addition of cupolas to the towers, and probably the side colonnades completed in 1706, plus, internally, the remodelling of the medieval great hall and the insertion of a new stone staircase.

Talman was an arrogant and argumentative man with an inflated idea of his own worth, according to the sparse surviving contemporary references to his character. He openly criticized Christopher Wren's competence as surveyor after the collapse of work at Hampton Court Palace. Eventually his overcharging lost him what might have been his greatest architectural opportunity, when both he and John Vanbrugh were consulted by Charles Howard, third earl of Carlisle, about designs for his new house at Castle Howard in Yorkshire. Though Talman lost the commission, it seems likely that some of the most important new ideas incorporated into Vanbrugh's final design were introduced by him. This rivalry between Talman and Vanbrugh continued over the proposed new house for John Holles, third duke of Newcastle, at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. Though this commission was abandoned, it produced a letter from Vanbrugh to the duke of Newcastle in which he names a number of clients who suffered ‘vexation’ at Talman's hands (Whistler, 1648–52). This list includes three patrons whose employment of him can be substantiated by other documentary evidence (the first duke of Devonshire, the third earl of Carlisle, and Sir John Germain), and leaves five further names who may have commissioned him. The inclusion on this list of Edmund Sheffield, third earl of Mulgrave and marquess of Normanby, could either refer to his new house in London, Buckingham House, designed according to Colen Campbell by William Winde, though possibly altered in execution by Talman, or to his country seat at Normanby Park in Lincolnshire, where additions were also made about 1700. The reference to Lady Falkland probably relates to Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, where the surviving great hall was remodelled about 1700. Lord Coningsby's inclusion presumably relates to Hampton Court in Herefordshire, where the house was remodelled from about 1680 and where elaborate gardens were laid out between 1706 and 1710 by George London. The reference to Lord Portmore relates to possible additions to Dorchester House in Surrey. Finally, the reference to Lord Kingston refers to the additions made by Evelyn Pierrepont, fifth earl of Kingston upon Hull, to West Dean House in Wiltshire, where Talman carried out alterations and added a great garden terrace with central steps and flanking conservatories (Smith, 86–106).

Houses associated with Talman

The surviving evidence of Talman's involvement in the design of other country houses is tantalizingly unclear. His name has long been associated with Thoresby House in Nottinghamshire, a seminally important country house in the development of the baroque style in England. The surviving accounts show that the house was remodelled for William Pierrepont, fourth earl of Kingston upon Hull, between 1685 and 1687, but Nicholas Hawksmoor records that it was burnt out as soon as it was completed and an attic storey added when it was refitted, before 1690. The only clue to the designer of this house was thought to be contained in Colen Campbell's statement in Vitruvius Britannicus that Thoresby was ‘performed by the same hand that afterwards built Chatsworth’, but it now seems more likely that this refers to Benjamin Jackson as the builder, rather than Talman as the architect. The only other known link between Talman and Thoresby is Vanbrugh's reference to Lord Kingston, but since it now seems that this refers to the fifth earl's additions to West Dean House, there is no conclusive evidence to confirm or deny Talman's involvement at Thoresby.

Talman probably provided designs for Charles Powlett, later first duke of Bolton, but it is not clear whether these designs relate to Hackwood Park in Hampshire, built 1683–8, or to Abbotstone in the same county, rebuilt about 1685, or to both. At Milton House in Northamptonshire, Talman is known to have given advice to Baron Fitzwilliam of Lifford in 1688 about designs for a new house, but the only architectural work carried out was the new stables, which were built ‘according to Mr. Sturges his draught’ in 1690 (Colvin, Archs., 943). While at Lowther Hall in Westmorland, Talman supplied a design for a new house for Sir James Lowther, which was built 1692–5, but probably altered in execution. William Talman is known to have provided an estimate for remodelling Castle Ashby in Northamptonshire, for George Compton, thirteenth earl of Northampton, in 1695, and though nothing came of this he may have been responsible for designing the now demolished greenhouse built that same year. Talman's involvement in the design of Kiveton Park in Yorkshire, built between 1698 and 1704 for Thomas Osborne, first duke of Leeds, is based on a single surviving plan, which does not match the house as built. Similarly drawings by Talman for Raynham Hall in Norfolk prove that he was consulted about its remodelling by Charles, second Viscount Townshend, about 1703, but they do not prove that the subsequent alterations were carried out to his designs. At Witham Park in Somerset, Talman made designs for Sir William Wyndham about 1702, but these were definitely not carried out. Talman may have provided designs for Herriard Park in Hampshire for Thomas Jervoise, but no designs by him have been identified among the many surviving drawings, and the house built about 1703 was probably designed by John James. At Bulstrode Park in Buckinghamshire, seat of the former superintendent of the royal gardens, the first earl of Portland, significant alterations were made to the house and garden in 1706–7, though the only evidence of Talman's involvement are payments made to him by Henry or William Henry Bentinck, second earl, in 1715. Most tantalizing of all is Cannons House in Middlesex, where Talman provided designs for a new house and also designed and supervised the building of the offices for James Brydges, Baron Chandos of Sudeley and later first duke of Chandos, in 1713–14. Unfortunately the appearance of these buildings was not recorded before they were demolished in 1747. While at Panton Hall in Lincolnshire, built for Joseph Gace about 1719, Talman's claim to involvement in the design of the house is based on a set of drawings now lost.

Talman was an original and eclectic designer who produced designs in a range of styles. He gathered ideas from his wide-ranging collection of architectural books, which included not only the latest designs of continental baroque architects but also the designs of earlier English architects, such as Inigo Jones. His use of these diverse sources is most clearly illustrated by the varied designs he produced for the duke of Newcastle's proposed new house at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. The only country house for which a truly complete set of Talman's drawings survive is the one he designed for himself at Thames Ditton, where he shows a distinct personal preference for contemporary French architecture. His broad range of styles, or lack of stylistic consistency, has led to many stylistic attributions being made to Talman's œuvre. John Harris, the leading authority on the architecture of William Talman, has attributed a number of other houses to him on such stylistic evidence, including Bretby Hall in Derbyshire for Philip Stanhope, second earl of Chesterfield, Waldershare Park in Kent for Sir Robert Furness, Blyth Hall in Nottinghamshire for Edward Mellish, Whitton House in Middlesex for Sir Godfrey Kneller, and Appuldurcombe House on the Isle of Wight for Sir Richard Worsley. All of these have architectural features which might suggest Talman's hand, but as yet no reliable documentary evidence has come to light to confirm or deny these attributions.

Talman's involvement at the royal gardens suggests that he had a particular interest in gardens and their architectural embellishment. This is confirmed by his work at Chatsworth and by the recent discovery that Talman designed and built the magnificent 300 foot long terrace for Lord Kingston's new gardens at West Dean House. Talman and the gardener George London worked together not only at Hampton Court Palace but also at Chatsworth, Dyrham, Cannons, and probably Hampton Court in Herefordshire, where some of the most elaborate gardens of the day were created. Harris has again suggested that Talman's close working relationship with George London may well have extended to other gardens where London is known to have worked. From this he has attributed to Talman some of the important buildings found in other gardens known to be by George London, such as the greenhouse and bowling pavilion at Wanstead House in Essex, built for Sir Richard Child.

Death and reputation

Knowledge about Talman's architectural career is still fragmentary, but those buildings and designs which are known to be by him suggest an architect of stylistic range and adaptability. Many of his better documented commissions show that he was able to provide appropriate architectural solutions to difficult architectural problems, so long as he did not fall out with his patron first. At Drayton he produced a dramatic and original solution to the designing of a new façade within a castellated courtyard house. At Dyrham he produced a plain but grand new range, which provided an appropriate setting for Blathwayt's increased status, and also an excellent backdrop for his magnificent new garden. At Chatsworth, Talman produced, within the strictures of an older house, a bold and radical baroque design for the south front, the perfect counterpoint to the splendid great parterre laid out before it. The fact that many of his commissions involved altering older houses might suggest that Talman specialized in solving these often difficult planning problems. The statement of his arch-rival Vanbrugh that he caused many of his clients ‘vexation’ should be treated with caution, especially since it now seems likely that Talman produced important works for most of the clients cited. Talman died on 22 November 1719 at Felmingham and he was buried in the churchyard there, under a black marble slab inscribed with his triple-T monogram.

Peter Smith


J. Harris, William Talman, maverick architect (1982) · H. Colvin, ‘The problem of William Talman’, Baroque and Palladian: the early 18th century great house, ed. M. Airs (1996) · R. G. M. Baker, ‘William Talman and a supposed project to improve Hampton Court, Surrey’, Archaeological Collections, 75 (1984), 177–83 · F. Harris, ‘Holywell House, St Albans: an early work by William Talman’, Architectural History, 28 (1985), 32–9 · L. Whistler, ‘Talman and Vanbrugh: episodes in an architectural rivalry’, Country Life, 112 (1952), 1648–52 · P. Smith, ‘West Dean House, Wiltshire’, Georgian Group Journal, 9 (1999), 26–32 · Colvin, Archs. · G. Worsley, ‘William Talman: some stylistic suggestions’, Georgian Group Journal, [2] (1992), 6–18 · S. Jeffery, ‘John James and George London at Herriard’, Architectural History, 28 (1985), 40–70 · M. D. Whinney, ‘William Talman’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 18 (1955), 123–39 · H. M. Colvin and others, The history of the king's works, 5 (1976), 33–7, 133–5, 157–9, 162–7 · J. Lever, ed., Catalogue of the drawings collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects: T–Z (1984), 9–12 · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/572, sig. 44 · 22 Dec 1719, TNA: PRO, PROB 3/19/45 (inventory)


Castle Ashby, Northampton, estimate for Castle Ashby


G. Grisoni, group portrait, oils, c.1718–1719, NPG [see illus.] · attrib. W. Sonmans, oils, Freemasons' Hall, London

Wealth at death  

£1500 to son John; annuities to wife and three young children: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/572, sig. 44; inventory, TNA: PRO, PROB 3/19/45