The best known and most successful carpet weaving workshops in England were the looms established at Axminster in Devon by Thomas Whitty in 1755. Whitty (1713-1792), an energetic weaver of cloth, recognized the growing demand for carpets among the aristocracy and wealthy merchant classes during the second half of the 18th century. Inspired by popular “Turkey Carpets”, self-taught Whitty set out to make hand-knotted seamless carpets on a large upright loom. Axminster carpets were quickly recognized as the best English produced carpets available, with Whitty winning prizes for carpet weaving by the Society of Arts in 1757, 1758 and 1759. Further appreciation is illustrated by a royal visit from George III in 1783, the commissioning of carpets by the Prince of Wales, as well as commissions from the leading architectural designers of the day such as James Wyatt and Robert Adam.
Whitty’s first major patron was Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 4th Earl of Shaftesbury (1711-1771) and his first wife, Lady Susannah Noel (d. 1758) who were extensively renovating their country residence, Saint Giles House in the village Wimborne Saint Giles in nearby Dorset. A perfect example of an English country house, St Giles House was originally built by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, in 1650.
In Whitty’s 1790 written account of the founding of Axminster, he expounds on their important patronage:
“… many gentlemen came, out of curiosity, to see it, and professed their desire to encourage it, by ordering for carpets. Among them, one of the first was Mr. Cook of Slape, near Beaminster; who ordered for a carpet from the first pattern I ever made. When I carried this Carpet home, I met Mr. Cook at Beaminster, who desired me to open it to show it to a gentleman there with him. This gentleman was a Mr. Twyinhoe, of Temple, London; and was steward to the Earl of Shaftesbury. He was much pleased with the sight of it, and told me he should be glad to render me all the services he could, for the encouragement of a new manufacture. Accordingly, he mentioned it to Lady Shaftesbury, who was a liberal encourager of Arts and manufactures. Her Ladyship desired him to request Mr. Cook to spare her that carpet, as she imagined it to be the first carpet that had been made…Lord and Lady Shaftesbury were so well pleased with that carpet that they and their family have been since some of our best customers.” (Bertram Jacobs, Axminster Carpets, Leigh-on-Sea, 1970, p. 24)
In addition to buying the first Axminster carpet ever made, Lord and Lady Shaftesbury purchased the present carpet for the Small Yellow Drawing Room (see image) where it remained until it was sold at Christie’s London in 1980 in the iconic and landmark sale Highly Important English Furniture and Sculpture from St. Giles House, Dorset. Another elegant George III Axminster was also included in this sale, as well as superb examples of carved giltwood including the iconic St. Giles’s chandelier and no less than four pairs of armchairs and two sofas from the celebrated St. Giles’s suite of seat furniture.
Because of his agility with and knowledge of classical antiquity, Robert Adam quickly ascended in popularity and became the architect to employ. For the vast majority of his commissions in London, Adam used Thomas Moore of Moorfields to supply the carpets, particularly for the Duke of Northumberland at Syon, and for Robert Child at Osterley Park. When working outside the city, however, he frequently collaborated with Whitty, as can be seen with carpets still in their original settings at Harewood House in Yorkshire and Saltram House in Devon, not too far from Axminster, each retaining two original carpets to this day (Sherrill, Sarah B., Carpets and Rugs of Europe and America, New York, 1995, pls. 200-201 and pls. 195, 197).
Whitty had no qualms about copying and using designs by Adam and other designers for his own customers (Jacobs, op. cit., p. 42). The present carpet’s design structure is identical to that now in the Dining Room at Saltram House that Robert Adam designed around 1775 for John Parker (1734-1788), a Member of Parliament for Devon (Sherrill, op. cit., pl. 197). The design of the carpet echoes the stucco ceiling but in the central medallion the painted poetic scenes in the lunettes on the ceiling are replaced with floral festoons on the carpet (for an image of the ceiling, see Beard, Geoffrey, The Work of Robert Adam, New York, 1978, pl. 35). Although no drawing for the carpet survives, a drawing of the ceiling dated 1768 is in the Soane Museum (Adam Drawings, Soane Museum, vol. 11, no. 256, titled “Cieling [sic.] of the Library at Saltram”, see Jacobs, op. cit., fig. 41).
The present carpet, however, is the only known example to have a cream ground for the lunettes in the central medallion; the others all share a dark brown ground. Another example, with different colors, on a light brown field was acquired in 1954 by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (Jacobs, op. cit., pl. 29). A slightly smaller version with the same coloration was sold by Christie’s London, 22 September 2011, lot 153. While another example, displays the same design but with a ton-sur-ton delicate trellis covering the dark brown field (see Christie’s New York, 18 October 2002, lot 326).