Donegal Carpet designed by Gavin Morton and G.K. Robertson, circa 1900.
During the nineteenth century a virtual revolution in interior design unfolded in the British Isles. The British Empire was approaching the zenith of its power. Having witnessed a marked upswing in industrial technology under the socially progressive patronage of Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, various arts and crafts had entered a new era of mass production, making artistic and artisanal objects of every kind affordable and accessible to a much broader clientele. The dominance of classical design inherited from ancient Greece, Rome, and Renaissance Italy also now gave way to a renewed interest in medieval European art, spurred on by the publications of architects, designers, and art critics such as Augustus Pugin, Christopher Dresser, and John Ruskin.
In the domain of painting the Pre-Raphaelite movement pioneered by artists like Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Edward Byrne Jones brought about a new aesthetic sensibility that found its foremost expression in the realm of interior design with the work of William Morris. Like Pugin and Dresser, Morris reacted strongly against the industrialized, mass production of the earlier Victorian period. Stressing a romantic notion of traditional medieval hand craftsmanship, he advocated a return to a higher standard of artistic production and public taste. Morris specialized above all in textile and wallpaper design, but the ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’ that he spawned also produced a whole new genre of rug and carpet production in the Britain, one that could now rival the great rug weaving centers that had become re-established in late nineteenth-century Persia and Turkey.
Rug production was certainly not new to Britain at this time. Already in the eighteenth century Axminster and Wilton carpets were providing a native British alternative to the rather costly and less accessible Oriental carpets of this earlier period. But Morris, inspired by the designs and theories of Pugin and Dresser, now began to produce hand-made carpets with a distinctly medieval revivalist European sensibility at a workshop near his home in Hammersmith, London. Given the enormous popularity and success that Morris achieved, his carpet and rug designs were eventually manufactured as machine-made pieces for a wider public. But the hand-made Arts and Crafts carpets of Britain remained the finest expression of this movement within the rug medium.
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