The best known and most successful carpet weaving workshops in England were the looms established at Axminster by Thomas Whitty in 1755. Whitty, 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. Whitty was the first Englishman to successfully exploit the techniques of pile carpet weaving by creating extremely high quality carpets at an economically feasible price. Axminster carpets were quickly recognised as the best English produced carpets available with Whitty winning the prize offered for carpet weaving by the Society of Arts in 1757, 1758 and 1759. The fame of Axminster carpets was well appreciated as evidenced 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 Robert Adam.
Because of his agility with and knowledge of classical antiquity, and not to mention his flamboyant character, Robert Adam quickly ascended in popularity and became the architect to employ. Adam and Thomas Whitty frequently collaborated on projects as can be seen with carpets still in their original settings at Saltram House, Newby Hall and Harewood House. Despite their successful partnership, Whitty had no qualms about copying and using designs by Adam and other designers for his own customers.
There is no documentation that Adam was the original designer of this carpet but the pattern does resemble some of his neo-classical designs for ceilings and carpets. The name 'Lansdowne' has been ascribed to this particular design strictly as a convenience. A version of this carpet (see B. Jacobs, op. cit, pl. 53) was placed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the reconstruction of the Dining Room of Lansdowne House, a London house designed by Adam in the early 1760's and demolished in 1929. Interestingly, the drawing room of Lansdowne House was acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art where this carpet was displayed for many years (please see S. Day, Great Carpets of the World, Paris, 1996, p. 292, fig. 282 for an image of it in situ.).
There are six surviving Axminster examples of the so-called 'Lansdowne' design all woven between 1770 and 1790. Three of the examples display a tri-partite format, while the remainder (including this example) do not have end panels. It is debatable whether or not these were reduced in size at one point, which is common, or whether they were originally intended to be of a square format. Adam and other designers frequently reinvented carpet designs using elements from one carpet design in another so it plausible that the design existed originally as both a tri-partite format and a square shape.
There are two other examples with a dark blue ground, one in the Lansdowne Room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, mentioned above, and the other formerly at Boscobel, Garrison-on-Hudson, New York and offered recently at Sotheby's, London, 5 April 2006, lot 147. The Victoria and Albert Museum has two pastel ground examples in the tri-partite fashion and a light blue square format example was sold at Phillips, London, 16 October 2001, lot 214 and formerly in the Manor House, Spexhall, Suffolk (for images of the above please see B. Jacobs, op. cit., Leigh-on-Sea, 1970, pls. 52, 53, 55 and S. Sherrill, Carpets and Rugs of Europe and America, New York, 1996, p. 204, pl. 222).
The carpet offered here retains the incredible colour, neo-classical design and mastery of execution which has made Axminster carpets so highly sought after since their creation in the 18th century.