“What are the chances,” asks Luke Irwin, founder of his eponymous carpet company, “of somebody who specialises in designs for the floor discovering on his own land a mosaic floor dating from about 300 AD?” Although this actually happened to him about a year ago, Irwin sounds as amazed and delighted as if it were yesterday.
For not only does he now feel connected to thousands of years of history, living as he does where fifth‑century warlord Vortigern or even King Arthur (yes, really) once might have made their home, but it has inspired him to create a new collection of beautiful and original rugs, all based on the extraordinary mosaics that lie beneath his Wiltshire land.
The story began in February 2015 when Irwin was restoring a nearby barn so that his children could play table tennis in it. He happened to be there when the builder’s shovel hit something hard and cold. He stopped and looked and there, before his astonished eyes, he saw a striking pattern of what was clearly a Roman mosaic that must have lain untouched for something like 1,600 years.
He immediately called the county council and they in turn called Historic England (once known as English Heritage), who confirmed that the mosaic dated from Roman times – and was not just part of a workman’s cottage but of a major palace. It wasn’t long before they declared it to be one of the most important Roman villas in England, the quality of its mosaics surpassing anything else in the country, even the great Chedworth in Gloucestershire. The villa was probably built some time between 175 AD and 220 AD and was lived in continuously until at least the fifth century.
“Pieces of mosaic were everywhere,” Irwin says, “as were literally hundreds of oyster shells, all having clearly just been tossed aside once the oyster had been devoured.” Today, though scheduled as a national monument, the site has been covered up with earth to help preserve it, but at some stage in the future archaeologists may return to uncover it.
But we can all share in the excitement of Irwin’s discovery, because it has been the impetus behind his latest rug collection, Mosaic, launching in mid-May. “I didn’t want to do a pastiche of Roman mosaics or repeat some kitschy mythological tales,” he says. “I wanted to do something subtler, to try to make these colours and patterns fresh and relevant for today.”
The patterns that were unearthed were, after all, “designed for flooring that predates rugs. What I loved about them was the timeworn designs and the geometry from the tesserae, which gives them a beautiful kind of structure.” It is this sense of geometry and wear that Irwin has reproduced in the 12 rugs that form the collection. Deverill, an interlocking pattern using a subtle combination of clay, slate and chalky colours, is taken directly from the mosaics he uncovered. Others, such as Claudius, echo the colours and feature a classic mosaic border pattern around the edges, while Vespasian is a compilation of variously patterned mosaic squares bordered by diamond shapes.
Irwin has his rugs made by hand in Jaipur, where the skills to knot them in the manner of antique Persian carpets still exist. They are made of silk and wool and, as with some of his earlier pieces, he uses an iron-oxide wash that reacts only with the wool, causing it to shrink back and leave the silk standing proud. It also results in subtle striations of colour, so that while a rug may be mainly, say, grey, it is in fact composed of myriad different shades of grey, which give it great depth. They all cost £1,440 per sq m. All in all it makes for an intriguing collection connected to the history of England.