When Carpets Answered Ceilings

Though it is seldom, if ever, done today, there was a time when grand rooms in fine homes were designed so that the carpet on the floor mirrored the design painted or carved on the ceiling. This practice had begun in Europe by the mid-seventeenth century, but it reached its peak in England in the late eighteenth century. However, the practice did continue during the Regency, which is, of course, why it finds mention here.

The whys and hows of matching ceilings and carpets …

From at least the seventeenth century, especially in Europe, very grand rooms in great houses and palaces typically had lavishly decorated ceilings, many with paintings of notable biblical or mythological scenes set into oval or rectangular panels. Though the majority of these paintings were in the dramatic and exuberant Baroque style, the buildings into which they were set were usually based on the symmetry of classical Greek and Roman architecture. This love of symmetry led to a tendency to mirror the decoration of the ceiling of a room onto the floor of that same room. Early in the century, these floors might be made of stone or wood in patterns which reflected those of the ceiling. Those floor designs executed in stone could range from simple geometric shapes which approximately reflected the basic geometry of the ceiling to extremely detailed mosaics which replicated the ceiling design exactly on the floor. The designs executed in wood were usually less exact in replicating the design on the ceiling, typically employing basic geometric shapes which echoed those of the main contours of the ceiling design. These floor designs were said to "answer" the design of the ceiling, thus imparting greater symmetry into the room in which they were laid.

Carpets were known in Europe long before the seventeenth century, but all of them were imported from Asia and the Levant, especially Turkey. Most of these were patterned pile carpets, typically measuring only a few feet long and wide, as anything larger would have been prohibitively expensive, not to mention extremely difficult to transport in the cargo holds of the merchant ships of the time. But that smaller size suited most buyers, since they had no intention of placing their valuable carpets on their floors. These lush, beautiful, richly colored and patterned carpets were placed on tables, chests and beds, where they could be safely displayed to visitors in order to proclaim their owners’ wealth and taste with the least risk of damage. Well into the seventeenth century, even in many great houses, floors might be simply compacted earth or very roughly finished boards. In the very best houses and palaces, simple wooden plank floors were used in the better, more public rooms. But, since most of these floors were routinely covered with sand, rushes or straw, no one would have even considered throwing down a precious and valuable textile on top of such a surface, to be trod underfoot by heavy, rough-soled shoes and boots.

As the seventeenth century opened, manufactories for the making of textiles were being established across Europe to replicate many of the beautiful and elegant textiles which were then imported from abroad. Some of those manufactories focused on the making of pile carpets, with patterns similar to those imported from the Orient. But by the latter decades of the century, the techniques for carpet-making in the textile centers of Europe had become much more sophisticated. Carpet looms were larger, more complex and more efficient. It became possible to weave extremely precise detail into the surface of very large finished carpets and soon carpet design expanded beyond replicating the patterns of carpets from the Orient. In addition, due to in part to more efficient looms, the costs of Continental textiles, including carpets, were slowly reduced so that they were significantly less expensive than those imported from foreign makers. And, at about this same time, the floors of great houses and palaces were more often made of polished wood or stone than just pounded dirt or rough boards and the use of sand, rushes and straw was restricted to the working areas of the house. The construction of indoor footwear, especially for those of the nobility and aristocracy, no longer employed hobnails and other fasteners protruding through the soles which would damage carpet fibers. Thus, with larger carpets having detailed designs available at a lower cost and the soles of most indoor shoes now of smooth leather and other materials, the fashion of covering floors with carpets spread among the aristocracy of Europe.

Where they had once used stone or wood to mirror the ceilings of their great rooms in order to enhance the symmetry of those rooms, some among the very wealthy royalty and nobility of Europe had carpets made to answer their ceilings instead. This worked rather well for those rooms in which the ceiling was ornamented with basic geometrical shapes and simple patterns from nature. But it proved to be quite upsetting, even shocking, when the ceilings of those rooms included paintings of human figures. Though trompe l’oeil (literally "tricking the eye") has always been very popular in the decorative arts, most people were disconcerted, even startled, to find themselves in the act of walking upon an upturned human face in a carpet design which exactly replicated the paintings in the ceiling above. If the painting in the ceiling was of a biblical scene, many devout people were quite offended at the thought of walking upon the faces of figures from the Bible. The practice of making carpets to match the ceilings of great rooms fell out of favor in Europe not long after it had begun.

For nearly a century, carpets and ceilings went their own way, even in the same room, until Robert Adam returned from his studies in Europe. The lavish ornamentation of ceilings in Britain had never been as common as it had in Europe, while the mirroring of those ceilings with a carpet on the floor of the room is believed never to have been done. Until Robert Adam began his career as an architect and interior designer. Adam’s designs were much more delicate and elegant than had been the heavy and ornate styles of the Baroque and Palladian neo-classicism, but they were still based on classical symmetry. And as he developed his own unique, mature style in which he integrated each room and its furnishings, he began designing carpets which mirrored the designs of the ceilings of his rooms in order to fully unify the ornamentation. But having learned of those carpets which mirrored even the paintings on the ceilings of some of the great rooms in Europe, he took care not to repeat that mistake in his own carpet designs.

Many of the grand rooms which Adam designed did have ceiling paintings, often set into large round, oval, hexagonal or octagonal medallions in the center of the ceiling, surrounded by elegantly decorated molded plasterwork. Some rooms also had smaller paintings set into the corners of the room. The majority of these paintings in grander homes were executed by the noted artists Angelica Kauffman and her husband, Antonio Zucchi while others were executed by the decorative painter, Michael Angelo Pergolesi, a friend of Robert Adam. Just as he had with Mrs. Coade, Adam routinely patronized those artists and suppliers from whom he received high-quality materials for his clients’ homes.

Adam often began a new design for a room with the ceiling. He then used the motifs and colors which he employed there throughout the room to unify his design, including the floor. In some cases, in those rooms which did not have paintings incorporated into the ceiling design, but were ornamented with mythological creatures, floral motifs or geometrical patterns, Adam would have carpets made to match the ceiling as closely as possible. But for those rooms which had paintings set into the molded plasterwork, he would replicate the pattern of the molded plasterwork as well as the same colors, so that the essential structure and color of the ceiling was mirrored in the carpet. But within those ovals or octagons in which a painting was set on the ceiling, he would usually place a geometric or floral motif, thus avoiding carpets with human faces on the floor, yet still creating the symmetry of a ceiling which was mirrored in the carpet below. Flowers were especially popular with many of Adam’s patrons. Unlike the carpets of France, the English not only loved the flowers in their gardens, they also loved flowers, especially large, colorful bouquets of them, woven into their carpets.

Most of the rooms for which Adam designed carpets which answered the ceiling were the ultra symmetrical cube and double cube rooms which he included in a number of the great country homes and London town houses which he remodeled over the course of his career. Interestingly, in some rooms, Adam actually designed a carpet which was a counterpoint rather than a complement of the decorated ceiling above. Typically, even though he did not repeat the design of the ceiling, he did usually employ the same colors, so there was some unity in the design. However, this seems to have been done only in smaller rooms, often intended for the private use of the family. And none of these rooms were symmetrical cube or double cube rooms. There were a few rooms for which Adam designed another type of floor covering altogether. These rooms were often foyers, halls and galleries, high traffic areas for which he designed pavement floors which reflected the general design of the ceiling but did not duplicate it. Some of these floors were done in colored marbles, while others were done in scagliola. Adam also designed a very few floors, usually in small rooms, in wood. In these rooms he employed parquetry in much the same way that he used marble or scagliola, to reflect the ceiling design, but not replicate it exactly.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, all carpets were hand-knotted and custom-made to fit the room for which they were intended. When Adam began designing carpets to answer his ceilings, he commissioned them all from the Moorfields manufactory in London, established and run by his friend, Thomas Moore. But Adam did not patronize the Moorfields factory simply because its proprietor was his friend. The carpets made at Moorfields were acknowledged as some of the finest in England. However, in time, Adam also commissioned some of his carpets from the Axminster manufactory established by Thomas Whitty, in Devon. Whitty’s Axminster carpets were equal in quality to those made at Moorfields, but since Whitty employed mostly young girls to do the weaving, he was able to charge less for his carpets. In addition, Whitty was an expert dyer with an incredible eye for color, so that he was able to exactly match the colors Adam used in his room designs. He was also a life-long amateur botanist, who was able to produce carpets with extremely realistic and life-like flower images woven into the pile, for those clients who wanted them.

The carpets produced by the manufactories at both Moorfields and Axminster were hand-knotted pile carpets. There were, however, a few carpets designed by Robert Adam which were not made in a factory, though they were designed to answer a ceiling. These diminutive carpets were for small private rooms, in most cases, a lady’s dressing room or small sitting room. Very often floral motifs were a large part of the pattern. Adam typically provided the design on paper to the lady herself. She would transfer it to a heavy-gauge linen canvas and work the design in worsted wools. Most ladies worked these needlepoint carpets in sections, using a double tent stitch, then hand-seamed the sections together as they were completed. Usually, the carpet was then finished with a backing of a sturdy linen canvas.

Even for the most splendid double cube rooms, these hand-made, custom carpets were not made to fully cover the room. In most rooms, the carpet was surrounded by a border of a fine highly polished wooden floor. The visible parts of this wood might be highly polished oaken planks, some stained brown to imitate finer woods, such as walnut or teak, or more commonly in England, lime-washed to impart a silvery sheen which gave the appearance of aged oak. For the more affluent, this border was in a parquet pattern meant to harmonize with the decoration of the room. But what few people realized was that the elegant design of these wood floors was only on the border of the room. Typically, this highly finished, waxed and polished border extended from the skirting to only a few inches under the carpet. The rest of the floor was usually plain wood planks. Oak was the preferred wood for such floors, but it was almost prohibitively expensive and would only be found in the homes of the most wealthy. People of lesser means had to make do with deal or fir floorboards. But double cube rooms were also often used as ballrooms, and people would not dance on a carpet. The solution was to roll up the carpet and remove it from the room before the ball began. But what about those plain plank floors which were never meant to be seen? That problem could be fairly easily resolved by the popular practice of chalking the ballroom floor before a grand ball. Did the artist who prepared the design for the floor ever mirror the ceiling of the room in his design, an ephemeral replica of the carpet which had been removed? There are not enough records to know for sure, but it is certainly possible.

Though Robert Adam was the first architect/interior designer in Britain to design carpets to answer the ceilings of his important rooms, he was not the only one for long. The concept quickly became fashionable and many wealthy people wanted the ceilings in their lavish public rooms to be mirrored in their carpets. And this fashion continued among the wealthy, right through the Regency. After the sale of the lease of the Moorfields factory at Moore Place in 1793, the bulk of the commissions for these answering carpets went to the Axminster manufactory. By the early nineteenth century, many wealthy people who had a great house would have the ceiling in one or more of their important public rooms decorated, if it was not already, and would then have a carpet made to match that ceiling. By so doing, they could show both their wealth and taste. This practice continued, right through the Regency. In fact, the Regent himself commissioned at least two huge carpets from the Axminster manufactory to answer the ceilings in the ornate rooms of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton about 1817. The ceiling of the Banqueting Room was decorated with dragons, which were woven into the huge carpet which was laid in it. It was so large that there was no loom available to weave it in one piece, so it had to be woven in two parts and carefully hand seamed together just before it was laid in the room. Records show that the Regent paid £735 for just this one carpet. Another carpet was made for the adjoining Saloon, though it was somewhat less costly. Sadly, the carpets for the Banqueting Room and the Saloon are now lost, and all that remains are the designs executed for them by the architect, Robert Jones.

This steady flow of prominent commissions kept the Axminster carpet factory busy and profitable for nearly a decade after the Regency. The making of these carpets was so crucial to the prosperity of the town of Axminster that after the completion of any important rug, it was rolled up and carried by a number of factory workers to the local congregational church, where it was spread out over the pews, for everyone in the town to admire, during which time a special service of thanksgiving and the blessing of the carpet was carried out by the minister. The carpet was then carefully rolled and packed for shipment to its new home.

Though there were a number of carpets made to answer ceilings during the Regency, many of those which had been designed by Robert Adam were still in place in many of the great houses of Britain. Both the Moorfields and Axminster carpets were of high quality, thick and study enough to remain in good condition for a very long time. This is due in part to the fact that most of them were laid in important public rooms that did not get a lot of regular traffic. These rooms tended to be used only on special occassions, which significantly reduced the wear and tear to which the carpets were subject. There was also the fact that most custom-made carpets were supplied with a cloth cover to protect them from light and dust when the room was not in use. For example, the Axminster carpet for the Tapestry Room at Newby Hall, in Yorkshire, was accompanied by a green serge carpet cover when it was delivered.

As noted last week, cube and double cube rooms were a status symbol, even during the Regency, and that status symbol was significantly enhanced when it was furnished with a luxurious, hand-made pile carpet which answered that room’s ceiling design. However, though people of more modest means could not afford a double cube room, or a house large enough to accommodate its great size, they could have a carpet which answered the ceiling in at least one of their better rooms. Probably not from Moorfields or Axminster, but there were other, smaller carpet manufactories which had been established in Britain by the Regency which also made carpets. Such carpets tended to be less expensive as they were made by less-skilled weavers in simple designs. In addition, materials of lesser quality were used, so they would not have survived in good condition for multiple decades. But for a homeowner who wished to give the impression of a fashionable home decorated in good taste, they served the purpose.

It was not beyond the realm of possibility for those of the more middling classes to have a carpet to answer at least one ceiling in their home. For example, those ladies who created a print room for themselves might also paint or stencil designs on the ceiling of that room. They could then transfer that same design to heavy-gauge linen canvas and, using worsted wools, needlepoint a carpet to match the ceiling of that room. A pretty, petite, private space where that lady could take her ease and enjoy the fruits of her own handiwork. Less affluent people could create the impression of a symmetrical room by having a floor cloth painted to match the ceiling of the room in which it was placed. Thus, they were able to achieve a fashionable look at a much lower cost. Floor cloths were commonly used in private rooms, such as bedchambers, dressing rooms, nurseries and family sitting rooms. Better-off families would have someone paint their floor cloths for them, but others would buy the heavy-weight linen canvas, then paint and varnish it on their own. By so doing, they could save a great deal of money and still have attractive floor coverings for their rooms.

Dear Regency Authors, should you make use of a double cube room in one of your stories, might it have a carpet which answers its ceiling to further enhance its lavish symmetry? Perhaps a creative young lady of limited means might decide to brighten the drab bedchamber of her humble cottage by painting a design on the ceiling and that same design on a floor cloth for that room. And might the hero, or his dog, or maybe even his horse, do some mischief to her precious new floor cloth while she has it outdoors waiting for the varnish to dry? Then again, maybe a young lady, trained at Nancy Pawsey’s embroidery school, has been hired by an aristocratic lady to help her complete a needlepoint carpet she is making to match the ceiling of her dressing room at the family’s country home. What could happen if this aristocratic lady had a handsome son or nephew who is spending the summer with her?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to When Carpets Answered Ceilings

  1. When we moved into our Victorian house when I was a child, the edges of the room were beautifully stained and polished and there were splinters in the more roughly finished floorboards in the middle, most of which I contrived to find.
    Cardinal Thomas Wolsey has been credited as one of the first, if not the first, person in England to lay carpets on the floor, in Hampton Court Palace, which was a huge scandal of extravagance and was probably his way of trying to persuade the less fastidious not to make a mess of one kind or another on the floor as was common where rushes were still used [despite the comments on the subject of cleanliness by Erasmus].
    I’m intrigued by the idea of carpets with human figures on, I confess that continental carpets make me think of Aubusson, all swags and roses… though with mosaics I have to say the plot bunnies abound with the idea of clues to a buried treasure left by some swashbuckling ex-pirate, I mean, privateer.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am sorry about the splinters. Ouch!!! But how cool that you have had personal experience with a room which once had a grand carpet at its center.

      You are quite right, most scholars of carpets do credit Cardinal Wolsey with being the first person to put a carpet on the floor, at Hampton Court. Sadly, it also brought him a large measure of that jealousy on the part of Henry VIII which eventually cost the poor cardinal his head. However, most carpet scholars also believe that the first carpet seen in England was brought by Eleanor of Aquitane when she came to England as the wife of Henry II. Apparently, it was quite a novelty at the time.

      I like this new plot bunny! Especially set in a mosaic, which has a better chance of surviving and remaining in the same place for a much longer period of time. I was horrified to discover during my research that at one great house, with a pair of Adam-designed Axminster carpets which matched the ceilings of the rooms they were in, one of the twentieth-century owners thought they were a bit worn and old-fashioned and he gave them to his game-keeper, who cut them up to fit the rooms of his cottage. Philistines!!!

      Oh, well. Have a great weekend!

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Sometimes people can be so completely philistines they leave one gasping and spluttering… I certainly wouldn’t dispute Eleanor of Aquitaine, it was certainly common in France from the 12th century to have small carpets/rugs by the bed as are shown in several extant illustrations [I was poking about after the earliest origins for carpets on the floor a few weeks ago, and Eleanor was mentioned as unconfirmed, it was an interest in passing for a throwaway remark in a Renaissance novel, not a grand passion so I never followed it as diligently as I might… ]

      • The plot bunny by the way is entered in my notebook of plot ideas which I read through from time to time to draw into other stories or inspire a new one – I’ve expanded the concept to the ceiling and the floor having a difference wherein lies the clue. If anyone wants to take this and run with it, I make a free gift of it, but please let me know so I don’t!

  2. Kathryn Kane says:

    Another possible use for one of these carpets has just occurred to me. Since they were all hand-made and none of them was a standard size, a rolled carpet could be any size without arousing any suspicions. Which means that a rolled carpet could make an interesting hiding place for someone who needed to travel unseen about England.

    A round wooden frame could be constructed, over which was wrapped a few layers of carpet, the ends being covered by coiled carpet selvedges so that the rolled “carpet” looked tightly rolled. Some of these carpets were so large that they could easily accommodate two people hiding inside.

    After all, it worked for Cleopatra!

    =^..^=

    • Neat! and a nice bit of byplay in discussing Cleopatra too [fits in nicely with Egyptomania after Napoleon fetched up there IIRC peaking 1812-1814] and maybe even someone trying, abortively, to dissolve [stolen?] pearls in vinegar which myth was also attributed to Cleopatra.

  3. none of my aforementioned plot bunnies in my first use of this, but I shall be mentioning a double cube ballroom and a chalked floor to echo the ceiling just because it’s a really posh place… but I haven’t forgotten my other bunnies!

  4. Thank you! I shall…

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