During the second half of the 18th century and early 19th century Axminster carpets were the favorite carpets of the rich. They are frequently mentioned in descriptions of interiors in Regency novels, especially Georgette Heyer’s. Famous architects/designers like Robert Adam would supply the patterns based on Roman floor mosaics or coffered ceilings. Both George III and George IV patronized the factory, commissioning carpets for various Royal residences.
The history of the Axminster carpet started in 1755, when Thomas Whitty opened a carpet manufacturing company in the town of Axminster, in the county of Devon. The development of carpet manufacture in England during this period was enabled by laws which were designed to promote locally produced textiles, out of concern that foreign textiles were dominating the market, particularly by the French Savonnerie carpets. These early Axminster rugs were hand knotted, and they quickly became the undisputed choice for wealthy aristocracy. Antique Axminster carpets and rugs grace the floors of Chatsworth and Brighton Pavillion to name a few and were bought by George III and Queen Charlotte who visited the factory in the 18th Century. – Doris Lelsie Brau, English Axminster and Wilton
The Brighton Pavilion music room carpet (first image) has quite a remarkable story. The original carpet was made by Thomas Whitty and his daughters circa 1820 for the Prince Regent. Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, apparently disliked the brash blue color of this ‘decadent’ carpet and had it removed, bleached into a light beige colour, and cut up to be used in a guest bedroom at Buckingham Palace. The reproduction of this carpet is outlined in Craigie Stockwell’s Historic Reproduction. (Scroll down the page to find the details of how a copy of the original carpet was made!)
The story of how Thomas Whitty (1713-1792), cloth manufacturer of Axminster in Devonshire, came to make his first carpet is well known. As an old man, he wrote an account for his son describing how, in 1755, in an attempt to provide a better income to support his growing family, he spied on the carpet factory of French émigrés in Fulham and returned to Axminster where “I immediately began to prepare a loom and materials for making a Carpet, and on MIDSUMMER’S DAY 1755, a memorable day for my family, I began the first carpet I ever made, taking my children and their Aunt Betty Harvey to overlook and assist them, for my first workers”. – Early Axminster Carpets
Axminster carpets are distinctive because of their bright colors and intricate designs. They are traditionally made from wool.
Samuel Whitty, in an advertising broadsheet, described the advantages of Axminster carpets thus: “They are made in one piece, to any size or pattern and of any shape however irregular. They are capable of the most beautiful designs in Flowers, Fruit, Armorial Bearings, Grotesques or any other….and their texture is extremely durable”. – – Early Axminster Carpets
At Harewood House, for example, where Thomas Whitty made carpets for rooms remodeled by Robert Adam in the 1790’s, the neoclassical ideal of the whole becomes magnificently apparent. In the Music Room a flat plaster ceiling decorated with low-relief arabesques and geometric motifs incorporates small round classical paintings by Angelica Kauffmann; these medallions are exactly reflected in the Axminster carpet below, and the lines of the carpet mirror the lines of the light, airy plasterwork. – The Most Splendid Carpet, Chapter 3
The early 19th century English Axminster carpet in the video above has a sand field with a golden leaf roundel containing four fish around a naturalistic lion head within a border of finely-drawn mythological animals, palmettes and vinery. It goes for $425,000
This carpet [above] is one of the earliest datable examples to have survived from the formative years at Axminster and was commissioned for the Drawing Room at Dumfries House. In a marvellously early example of thrift, it was shipped up separately from another, identical carpet, which the surviving invoice tells us was part of a Buy One – Get One Half Price deal! At £69 for the first one, this represents a saving of a large sum of money for the day. This is, of course, explained by the fact that they were both worked to the same design as a pair, so that the cartoon only need to be paid for once.
The carpet signifies the growing 18th century interest in exotic botany, as it includes a flowering cactus. The carpet dates from before Whitty’s collaboration with Robert Adam on the design of carpets. However, it is a wonderful example of a colourful, animated and sumptuous looking rococo piece of design. – The Story of the Blue Drawing Room: Dumfries House
The colors, designs, and shapes of Axminster carpets were quite versatile. Examples included floral carpets of the 1750s and 1760, and architect-designed carpets by Robert Adam for Harewood and Saltram, by Lewis Wyatt for the Library at Tatton Park, and by Robert Jones and Frederick Crace for the Brighton Pavilion. Axminster carpets were shaped and could be circular, semi-circular, or woven with shaped ends to fit semi-circular and square alcoves and apses. (Early Axminster carpets)
Axminster dominated the English carpet market until 1835, when Samuel Rampson Whitty, grandson of the founder, declared bankruptcy following a disastrous fire which destroyed the weaving looms. With competition from Europe and the rise of high-quality but cheaper, machine-made carpets, it was too expensive to try to revive the works.- Risky Regencies
The fire was disastrous on many levels, destroying records and carpet designs:
The fire destroyed not only buildings, looms and stock but also most of the written records, including the working drawings for carpets. Whereas the Woodward Grosvenor Company of Kidderminster still have an extensive archive of early cartoons, such cartoons are virtually non-existent for early Axminster carpets. – Early Axminster Carpets
The Axminister carpet industry was revived in the 20th century. According to the Axminster website, “a carpet manufacturer called Harry Dutfield was on a train where he met a vicar from the West Country who told him that carpets had not been made in Axminster for a while due to a disastrous fire that had destroyed the factory. The germ of an idea was born and in 1937 the decision was taken to relaunch carpet manufacturing in the town of Axminster. This was the renaissance of ‘Axminsters from Axminster’.” Today the name serves as a generic term for all machine-made carpets with pile similar to velvet or chenille, with almost all pile yarn appearing on the surface of the carpet.
When one sees patterned carpet in a public place [today], such as a casino, hotel or restaurant, it is usually an Axminster. Axminsters are more economical, for they use less yarn in their construction. The pile is created by a V-shaped tuft of wool that is trapped in place between the warp and weft. This weaving method also allows for the use of many more colors, as it is not limited like the Wilton/Brussels construction. For this reason, there were many carpets with huge sprays of flowers and Arabesques that could now be produced cheaply, and were available to the middle class, including outlets such as Sears and Roebuck. – Old House Web
More on the topic:
- The Most Splendid Carpet: English influence in design, Chapter 3.
- Christie’s Axminster carpet
- Early Axminster Carpets