ON NEW RELEASES, AXMINSTER CARPETS AND THE PECULIAR WORLD OF PUBLISHING
Though I truly love Ned’s story, FROM WAIF TO GENTLEMAN’S WIFE, in the odd time warp world of writerdom, it has been hard to fully wrap my mind around the reality of its release. While I’ve been doing some blogs and contests to promote WAIF, I’m also simultaneously going through the final edits for next summer’s release, THE SMUGGLER AND THE SOCIETY BRIDE, (Book 3 of a first-ever 8-book Regency continuity series that features three main families, scandal, murder, a hanging and revenge that reaches into the next generation.) And at the same time, I’m struggling with an unusually recalcitrant Muse to write my next story—another Wellingford tale—that features Greville Anders, that fired-estate-manager brother of WAIF heroine Joanna Anders Merrill.
As for the edits, along with changing back to commas the copy editor’s strange predilection for colons—in the middle of sentences—I also scratched my head over the c.e. changing “Axminster carpet” to “soft carpet.” Although I was knew these carpets were accurate to the Regency period, the copy editor’s questioning of the term spurred me to research them a bit further.
It’s true enough that carpeting as we think of it was unknown in Regency England. Wall-to-wall didn’t exist and woven carpets were still quite rare and expensive.
Knotted woolen and silk carpets were first brought back by Crusaders from the Middle East. Although elaborately embroidered and designed wall hangings had been made in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, not until the 17th century did monarchs there, eager to embellish their palaces with all manner of luxury items, begin to sponsor local craftsmen to produce such “Oriental” carpets.
Having taken over from the Italians the mantle of being Europe’s premier producer of luxury goods (when the Sun King Louis XIV imported Italian artisans to tutor French craftsmen,) it’s not surprising that the French were in the forefront of carpet-making. In 1627, by royal order, the Savonnerie factory was established at Chaillot in Paris to create pile carpets for use in the king’s palaces and as royal gifts. This establishment, which later merged with the famous tapestry-making firm Gobelin, created carpets with floral and architectural patterns, some based on designs (called “cartoons”) by famous painters. (The business continues today, still crafting exquisitely-made carpets for a discriminating and wealthy clientele.)
The carpets made at Savonnerie greatly influenced the designs of other firms, including the one established at Axminster by cloth maker Thomas Whitty in 1755. Like those produced in France, Axminster carpets often featured architectural or floral patterns that mimic those of Oriental carpets. And like fine carpets to this day, the Axminster designs were hand-knotted of wool on woolen warps with wefts of flax or hemp.
Although other carpet works were begun about the same time in Exeter and near London, Whitty’s firm in Axminster established itself as the premier producer of English-made carpets. King George III and Queen Charlotte visited the works, and following the royal lead, orders were quickly placed by others of wealth and high rank. Axminster carpets soon graced the Royal Pavillion at Brighton, Warwick Castle, Saltram House and Chatsworth.
Axminster, I discovered, is located in Devon—along whose smuggling-rich coast the story I’m currently working on, Greville’s story, takes place. In a further curious coincidence, Powderham Castle, the stately home outside Exeter in Devon I’d already chosen as the prototype for the dwelling of Lord Bronning, father of Greville’s heroine Amanda, happens to possess one of the first and finest of Axminster’s carpets.
Powderham Castle was built in 1391 by Sir Philip Courtenay and is still owned by the Courtenays today. The original castle, rebuilt and modified over the years, was further embellished by William Courtenay, third Viscount Courtenay and later Earl of Devon, with the addition of a Music Room designed by the famous architect James Wyatt. This handsome chamber also featured a carpet made by the newly formed Axminster Carpet Company--the biggest carpet ever made by the firm, until the Prince Regent heard of it and ordered a larger one. (Can we say “carpet envy?”)
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.
The Blackmores of Wilton, near Salisbury, bought the remaining stock and looms. Weaving had been a prominent trade in Wilton since the 17th century, and at the turn of the 19th, Lord Pembroke helped establish the Wilton Royal Carpet Factory. With this purchase, the firm extended their business to include patterned, hand-knotted carpets, which despite the change of location were still called “Axminsters.”
But in the mid-20th century, another curious development occurred. A carpet manufacturer named Harry Dutfield beguiled the tedium of a train journey by chatting with a vicar with a heavy West Country accent. Upon learning of Dutfield’s occupation, the vicar told him about the famous Devon town where carpet-making had thrived before the disastrous fire in the 1830’s. Intrigued, Dutfield followed up on the story and in 1937, began again to manufacture carpet in the town of its historic roots--Axminster.
In 2005, another event occurred to complete the merger of copy-edit suggestions, my research about Devon, Powderham Castle and the Courtenays. For the 250th anniversary of carpet weaving in Axminster, a special commemorative rug was produced. As in days of old, when church bells rang to signal the completion of each time-consuming, hand-made work of art, this special carpet was paraded by Axminster’s weavers through the town to the Minster Church, where it was blessed by the Bishop of Exeter. It was then presented to the Queen’s representative—the 18th Earl of Devon, William Courtenay--to be conveyed to its new home at Clarence House--the home of HRH the Prince of Wales.
I think “our” Prinny would be pleased.
(By the way, you can visit Axminster’s website, http://www.axminster-carpets.co.uk/250years.htm, to see a photo of the rug-carrying ceremony.)
There’s something inherently satisfying about discovering
a family and a business that has thrived from early days through
Regency times to our own. Inspired by those events, when I mailed
in my changes to the copy edits, I instructed production to change
“soft carpet” back to “Axminster carpet.”