18th-century British Floor Coverings

Heather Tetley

 

  Harewood's Music Room: the carpet has dominant pinks and browns and features ten colourful medallions which are mirrored in the pattern of the plasterwork ceiling  
  The 18th-century Robert Adam carpet in the Music Room at
Harewood House near Leeds (Reproduced by the kind
permission of the Earl and Countess of Harewood and Trustees
of the Harewood House Trust) 
 

Looking at the Georgian period, with its classical Palladian design, its light rooms, elegant furniture and glorious hand-knotted carpets, is rather like watching the sun emerge from storm clouds. The architectural and decorative ideals of plainness and structure are in such strong contrast to the previous century’s dark colours and stylised decoration, which so neatly reflected its convoluted, intrigue-ridden politics.

In the new Palladian style of the early 18th century, exact proportions, smaller fireplaces and light colours give the general tone of the lifestyle. Although carpets with stylised and rather oriental designs were being woven in Britain in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, there is no record of hand-knotted carpets being made during the second half of the 17th century or the first half of the 18th. The only records of carpets made before around 1750 describe flat-woven ‘Fote cloth’ carpets, which were narrow strips of plainweave cloth made from coarse wool or plaited from rushes.

Depending on the homeowner’s social status, floors were often limewashed in servants’ quarters and in the houses of poorer folk. Painted floorcloths, which echoed the geometric designs of expensive Italian ceramic tiles, were popular in the houses of the moderately well-off and in many of the great houses of Britain and in Protestant America. The latter shared the British taste for the Palladian style rather than the very ornate high rococo or baroque decorative style of Catholic Europe.

Ingrain, or Scotch carpets, also known as Kidderminster carpets, were also popular. These were woven double sided and employed more colour and design, rather like a coarser version of the Welsh blankets of today.

As Britain’s economy expanded, so the demand for carpets grew and new machines were invented to keep up with the demand. Foot-operated treadle looms were superseded by water-powered looms, which not only increased production but also allowed for more complex weaving techniques. Loop-pile Brussels and cut-velvet Wilton carpets began to be made in 1740. Their pile was created by adding extra backing material. The looping of the Brussels pile was formed by the use of a pile wire which was shot in with the weft (the yarns which are woven horizontally on the loom, passing through the vertical warp yarns) before being drawn out to create the loop. Later, a small blade was added to the end of the pile wire to cut the looped pile when it was withdrawn, creating ‘cut Wilton’.

There is plenty of documentation and many good illustrations of these early looms, but few surviving early power-loom carpets. However, examples of later 18th-century Brussels carpets and 19th-century ingrain carpets can be found at Audley End and there are replica Brussels carpets at Kew Palace which were made for the bedrooms in 2006. Although the colours still apparent in the surface of the fragments and in the replication may not exactly represent the original strong palette, the construction and materials show the fine weaving of the early machines.

The development of the glorious hand-knotted British carpets relied on the foresight and creativity of a few men as well as the religious and political problems in Europe. The defection of Huguenots from the French textile weaving centres in the late 17th and early 18th centuries is now famous. They brought with them the sophisticated skills of 17th-century silk-weaving, but it was only in the mid 18th century that weaving hand-knotted carpets using the ‘Turkish’ or symmetrical knot was developed. Symmetrical knots had traditionally been used in Britain in the 16th and early 17th century in ‘Turkey work’, whereas the great French Savonnerie carpets were more usually woven with asymmetrical or ‘Persian’ knots.

  The plush interior of The Blue Drawing Room with its striking blue-upholstered furniture and richly patterned carpet  
  The Blue Drawing Room at Dumfries House, Ayrshire with its Axminster carpet of 1758 (Reproduced by the kind permission of The Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust. Photo: Mike Scott)  
  Close-up of the Blue Drawing Room carpet showing that patches of the central medallion's black ground have disappeared as the dye has deteriorated  
  Detail of the central medallion showing the deterioration of the black iron tannin mordant dye  

In the 1750s carpet factories were set up by different weavers in Paddington, Moorefields, Fulham and later in Axminster, Exeter and Frome, all using slightly different techniques and materials. Although the original 18th century weavers came from France, fairly quickly English apprentices were trained and the workforce became predominantly British. These carpets were the products of great skill. They were immaculately designed and woven, and showed an unparalleled sophistication of design and weaving. Incorporating complex mono-coloured field designs supporting an abundance of flowers, their designs rivalled the herbaceous borders of the great country houses, which were then being stocked with new plants introduced by botanist explorers.

A fine example is the Axminster carpet from the Blue Drawing Room at Dumfries House, made by Thomas Whitty in Axminster in 1759. It is a spectacular example of his early weaving. The design consists of four cornucopia, spilling flowers onto a brick chevron ground. The flowers, which include roses, daffodils, crown imperial, morning glory and tulips, are woven in a subtle palette and with an accuracy similar to the flower drawings and embroidery of the time but executed in hand-knotted carpet with approximately 20 knots per square inch. Carpets of this quality were woven on woollen warps and linen wefts, while some of the lower grade carpets made later in the century were woven with both warps and wefts of linen and coarser wool. These lower grade carpets lack the high lustre of the famous 18th-century Axminster carpets found in The Royal Collection and at Harewood House, Dumfries House and such National Trust houses as Saltram, Wimpole, Attingham and Uppark.

Changes in architecture and interior design, structural advances and economic growth all affected the changes in the arrangement of furniture, and this was reflected in the style and scale of design of the carpets. It is noticeable that the designs of the carpets were governed by the size, shape and function of the room in which they were used. For example, in a large room such as the saloon at Saltram House, which would have been used for formal receptions, the furniture is arranged around the edge of the room. The central medallion of the carpet visually draws the room together, while the carpet’s various geometrical forms prevent the size of the room from being overwhelming. This is in contrast to the intimacy of the flowing floral designs of parlour carpets, such as the one in the Blue Drawing Room at Dumfries House, or the overlapping circles of the Music Room carpet at Harewood.

Robert Adam often designed carpets and ceilings to reflect each other. The Adam carpet and ceiling at Saltram is a very fine example of this, as are the two Adam carpets at Harewood House. Creating mutually complementary designs in these two very different mediums would have required a remarkable range of skills. Carpets needed a formal design structure, which was produced rather like a mosaic from the small squares of the knots. The stucco ceilings, meanwhile, had to conform to exact mathematical proportions to perfectly fit the space allowed.

DETERIORATION AND CONSERVATION

Many different factors contribute to the deterioration of historic carpets including wear, sunlight damage and other environmental problems. Textiles often suffer from the chemical deterioration of their constituent materials, which are made from biodegradable plant and animal fibres. Axminster carpets, for example, suffer from deteriorating linen wefts, a problem which may be caused by the acidity produced by ageing wool. Typically the wefts disintegrate and small splits grow into large broken areas leaving the woollen warp and knots intact but loose.

Conservation treatments for carpets in historic houses have been developed to meet ethical as well as practical needs. Treatments for textiles and other objects in use create special challenges for conservators. Unlike most valued historic objects, carpets in historic houses will usually continue to be used and exposed to wear after conservation. The problem of conserving carpets in historic houses, which have different needs from those in museum collections, has driven the development of a range of treatments. Carpet treatments have been developed using the basic techniques of tapestry and textile conservation and certain of the less invasive treatments from restoration, for the cleaning and repair of carpets.

THE BLUE DRAWING ROOM CARPET, DUMFRIES HOUSE

The conservation treatment of the 1858 Axminster carpet in the Blue Drawing Room at Dumfries House was undertaken for most usual types of carpet damage, especially the deterioration of the black ground in the border and in the central medallion. It was relevant to note, after the carpet was re-laid and while the blinds were still open, that it was exactly in the path of the sunlight’s journey across the room that the black areas (coloured by black iron tannin mordant dyes) had disintegrated to leave exposed warps and wefts.

This carpet also suffered from low pH and high conductivity due to a heavy impregnation of coal dust and soot. A wash solution was developed after testing that would remove acid pollution and grime while preventing dye run and leaving the piece at a pH that favoured both the wool and the cellulosic foundation and a conductivity that discouraged further uptake of atmospheric pollutants. It was wet-cleaned in a shallow wash tank in three sections using a non-ionic detergent that works well with wool at low temperatures.

  Two female conservators in a workshop repair a historic carpet mounted on special rollers  
  Conservators working on the Blue Drawing Room carpet from Dumfries House  

The damaged areas were supported onto large coarse linen (or ‘linen holland’) patches, which were sewn to the underside before the carpet was mounted on a large tapestry frame. In areas where the carpet was missing, the broken and fragile warps and wefts were couched to the linen. New warps and wefts were introduced and secured into the linen support fabric. These missing areas were infilled with new knots, where the surrounding pile was long and, where the surrounding pile was short, with a flat needlework stitch. Infill of this sort is undertaken for visual integrity, but more importantly to protect the carpet because even the lightest use, twice yearly vacuuming and daily opening of shutters, will gradually cause wear. Exposed areas, which are already weak, can suffer badly.

Conservation treatments for early powerloom carpets are slightly different. Because of their construction and the introduction of jute into carpet manufacture from the early 19th century, it is not advisable to fully immerse power-loom carpets. In general, where wet-cleaning is possible, it is preferable to use conservation detergents through wet vacuum extraction machines and hand-held upholstery heads, which allow for good control of vacuum suction and quantity of water used.

Conservation treatment specifications are primarily to do with the safety of the carpet, its future use and current environment, as well as curatorial decisions as to the levels of intervention needed. A recent controversial treatment was undertaken to infill a large hole in a 15th-century rug with a photo replication canvas plug. This is very useful for museum display, but is unsuitable for historic houses or domestic use. Although dyed linen, even photo replication plugs, may work well on walls or beneath furniture where the carpet may be seen but not walked on, the fabrics available for infilling missing areas that are still in use not only wear badly but are visually intrusive.

Those responsible for historic houses and their contents face many challenges as they strive to balance the often conflicting requirements of access and preservation. Dealing with the problems caused by tens of thousands of visitors per year (or per week at Windsor Castle) while continuing to encourage visitor engagement, is an area in which conservators and curators are pushing the frontiers of preventive conservation and effective display. The process of conserving a historic carpet doesn’t end once it has been relaid; deciding how best to protect and care for it thereafter is very much a part of the process.

~~~

Recommended Reading

J Ayres, Domestic Interiors: The British Tradition 1500-1850, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003

‘Case Study: Wilton carpets for Kew Palace, London’, [click on link for online version] The Grosvenor Wilton Company Limited

V Habib, ‘Scotch Carpets at Stirling: Thomas Gilfillan’s Cash Book and Ledger 1764-1770’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 130, 2000

F Hartog, ‘Digital In-fills for a Carpet’, [click on link for online version] V&A Conservation Journal, Issue 58, 2009

B Jacobs, The Story of British Carpets, 2nd ed, Carpet Review, London, 1972

S Parissien, Interiors: The Home since 1700, 2nd ed, Laurence King, London, 2009

S Sarin, ‘The Floorcloth and Other Floor Coverings in the London Domestic Interior 1700-1800’, [click on link for online version] Journal of Design History, Vol 18, No 2, 2005

M Thompson, Woven in Kidderminster: An Illustrated History of the Carpet Industry in the Kidderminster Area 1735-2000, David Voice Associates, Kidderminster, 2002

 

 

 

The Building Conservation Directory, 2012

Author

HEATHER TETLEY ACR is an accredited conservator with 25 years of conservation experience. She is the proprietor and a co-founder of carpet and tapestry conservation company The Tetley Workshop, which has been granted a Royal Warrant for the conservation of carpets.

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