The Most Splendid Carpet
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The year 1760 is generally taken as a convenient dividing line between the late baroque and neoclassical styles in English architecture and the decorative arts, and the time when English design turned to the work of the Scottish-born architect Robert Adam for inspiration. In the early years of the eighteenth century, English taste still ran to the imposing but rather austere Palladian exterior, derived through Inigo Jones from publications of Palladio's sixteenth century designs of villas at Vicenza and Venice. Symmetrically columned and pedimented, with balancing outbuildings at either side, these houses on the inside were dedicated to the social "parade" prescribed by wealth and position. A series of rectangular grand apartments marched one after another through the interior, with elaborately columned entrance halls and galleries, enormous trompe l'oeil ceiling paintings in which figures emerged as if from heaven, and Italianate carvings of dark wood and gilt. Furnishings were frequently imported from Italy or France, heavily gilt pieces with sculptural quality which complemented a taste for swirling, busy patterns and high relief.

The revolution wrought by Robert Adam when he returned to England from Rome in 1758 reflected his passion for the discoveries of archeologists at Rome, Herculaneum, Pompeii, and other classical sites, and effected a complete transformation in the appearance of interiors in England's great houses. In contrast to Palladian and baroque classicism, which drew its themes from books by sixteenth century Italian interpreters of Vitruvius and other architects of classical times, the neoclassicism of Robert Adam was based on actual classical buildings, carefully observed and drawn by Adam himself. Although he continued to design Palladian houses for his noble clients, many of whom he had encountered while he was abroad, his interior and exterior ornamentation of the houses embodied a new lightness and grace drawn from these classical sources.

FIGURE 10: "Design for a ceiling in the Etruscan taste executed in the Countess of Derby's Dressing Room," by Robert Adam, 1777. Courtesy of The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum Libraries.

"The massive entablature, the ponderous compartment ceiling, the tabernacle frame, almost the only form of ornament formerly known in this country, are now universally exploded, and in their place we have adopted a beautiful variety of light mouldings, gracefully formed, delicately enriched, and arranged with propriety and skill," Adam explained in his Works in Architecture. [1] He smoothed and flattened the high relief of the baroque: a sculptured column became a shallowly fluted pilaster barely emerging from the wall; extravagant stucco decorations became flat, delicate panels; thick festoons of foliage became light, airy arabesques. Adam used complex geometric, but flattened ceiling designs inspired by the ancient buildings he had sketched in Italy, and introduced elements of Roman wall decoration such as painted pedestals, urns, cameos, anthemions, grotesques, and griffins drawn from the wall paintings, especially from those at Herculaneum.

The grand apartments, too, Adam redesigned and reshaped for what Clifford Musgrave has called "scenic variety." [2] The monotonous rectangular progression of rooms of parade became a series of spaces planned for "the rise and fall, the advance and recess within the diversity of form in different parts of the building." [3] A columned great hall now led up a series of steps into a chamber paneled with flat gilded trophies, as at Syon, and then into a series of rooms more intimate in feeling, or, as at Kedleston, into an oval saloon and thence through rooms of varied shape and size with now a coffered ceiling, then a curving bay.

It was an entirely new outlook. Part and parcel of it was Adam's attitude towards the whole of his houses; he retained control himself of every design element in these houses, be it stucco moldings carried into form by Joseph Rose or wood moldings and chimney pieces sculpted by Sefferin Alker. Even the doorknobs were Adam's own design.

FIGURE 11: Mosaic: "Neptune and his wife Amphitrite" from the House of the Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite, Herculaneum, Mosaic incorporating the motifs of sunburst, Vitruvian scroll, rinceau, and anthemion, all favorites of Robert Adam, Fototeca Unione, Presso Accademia Americana, Rome.

FIGURE 12: Doorknob and escutcheon designed by Robert Adam; Kedleston, Derbyshire, England, With the kind permission of The Viscount Scarsdale. Author's photograph.

When this sort of unity was asked, when every element in every house had to be embodied into a coherent ensemble in which no element conflicted with neoclassical elegance and proportion, the carpet in a room had an extremely important role to play. It became a focal point, a reflection of the ceiling design in feeling if not in exact detail; it served to tie the room together into a unified composition. It had to function as part of the complete design plan, and could not be indiscriminately assigned to be made by a French carpet maker who had no familiarity with the rest of the house, and indeed might misunderstand the uniqueness of the Adam stylistic approach, which became known in France only as the French Revolution neared.

Other architects such as Thomas Leverton and John Crunden quickly adopted the Adam manner. Leverton's Woodhall Park, Riddlesworth Hall, and Woodford Hall as well as his London mansions in Bedford Square showed a command of the light, delicate plaster moldings and vivacious ornamentation of the Adam revolution. Leverton also designed every element in his houses including carpets. One carpet attributed to Leverton, formerly at Woodhall Park, is thought to have been made by Thomas Whitty at Axminster. The young James Wyatt was also a follower of Adam, but only reluctantly, since he felt public taste had been "corrupted" by Adam's formula, but, as he himself complained to no less a person than George III, he "was obliged to comply with it." [4] This demonstrates how irresistible was the Adam tide, even as late as 1796 when Wyatt was named Surveyor General of the Kingdom.

The impetus of this new found demand for English carpets nourished the Axminster factory of Thomas Whitty and the London workrooms of Thomas Moore. The carpets made by these craftsmen for Adam-designed houses and to fit into rooms designed by others following the Adam inspiration were invariably themselves of neoclassical design. [5] 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. Even the other furnishings incorporate elements of the same motifs: the Chippendale tables repeat the bellflower swags of ceiling and carpet, and the geometric curved inlay echoes the circles and lines of the plaster moldings.

PLATE IV: Detail of Axminster carpet, c. 1791. Possibly made for the Library at Harewood House. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

FIGURE 13: Detail of ceiling designed by Robert Adam, Library at Harewood House, Yorkshire, England. Photograph courtesy of The Earl of Harewood.

In the library of Harewood House the Thomas Whitty carpet also reflected the ceiling with its profusion of lacy decorations. This room, however, was redesigned in 1845 by the architect Charles Barry, who ordered the old carpet sold and a new one made to his ornate Victorian design. Recently, the Metropolitan Museum bought a "Moorfields" carpet, whose unmistakable resemblance to the Harewood House library ceiling suggests its identity as the 1791 library carpet and its maker as Thomas Whitty of Axminster.

The Senate carpet made by William Peter Sprague in the same year as the Harewood House carpets had a similar relationship to the architecture of the room. The sequence of design events may have been reversed here, however. The Senate Chamber did not acquire its oval plaster ceiling medallion until 1793, two years after the Senate carpet was woven, and it may be that the medallion itself was meant to complement the carpet, and that the frieze of hand-carved husk swags and bows was also designed to repeat the bellflower motif in the border of the carpet.

PLATE V: Detail of Axminster carpet, c. 1791, in the Music Room, Harewood House, Yorkshire, England. With the kind permission of The Earl of Harewood. Author's photograph (click on image for a PDF version).

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Last Updated: 30-Nov-2007