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” (a generic term for hand-knotted pile carpets, both from the East and West), self-taught Whitty set out to make hand-knotted seamless carpets on a large upright loom. 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 recognized as the best English produced carpets available, with Whitty winning the prize offered for carpet weaving by the Society of Arts in 1757 (shared with Thomas Moore of Moorfields), 1758 (shared with Peter Parisot of Exeter) and 1759 which he won outright. 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 James Wyatt and Robert Adam.
The carpet offered here, while not seemingly documented in the existing literature on Axminster carpets, has many distinguishing features that make it indisputably a product of the Axminster looms. Most notably, the accurate drawing of the individual flower specimens and their arrangements in the center medallion as well as the floral sprays and garlands arrayed on the field. An avid botantist, Whitty’s knowledge of flowers is evident in the accuracy with which they were drawn and portrayed.
The use of the underlying tone-on-tone brown and dark brown checkboard field can also be found on several other Axminster carpets: a carpet in the Henry Francis du Pont Collections at Winterthur (circa 1760-80) and another carpet sold from the Estate of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, Sotheby's, London, 27-28 May 2015, lot 51. Other similar Axminster carpets are in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth (S. Sherrill, Carpets and Rugs of Europe and America, New York, 1996, p. 198, pl. 210), a carpet sold at Sotheby’s, New York, 8 May 2009, lot 215 (with a similar outer minor border) and another sold at Christie’s, New York, 9 April 2019, lot 68.
Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tritton bought Godmersham Park in 1936, and not only rescued the house, but also filled it with one of the finest collections of English and French furniture in England. Godmersham Park was built by Thomas May Knight (d. 1781) in 1732 and it was his son, Thomas Knight who, having no heir, looked for a relation to take on the estate. A cousin, George Austen, rector of Steventon and the second of his five sons was adopted by the Knights. The following year, 1794, Thomas Knight died and shortly afterwards, Godmersham was occupied by Edward Austen. His sister, the novelist Jane Austen became a frequent visitor and it is traditionally thought to be the model for Mansfield Park. 'If there is anything in the influence of place, Godmersham was part author of the novels. The spirit of Jane Austen abides in the delicious air of this quiet and unspoilt valley' (from W. H. Helm, Jane Austen and her Country-House Comedy, quoted in H. Avray Tipping, 'Godmersham Park, Kent', Country Life, 6 November 1920, p. 602).