Although Oriental rugs and carpets were brought back to Britain by early travellers and explorers throughout the centuries, most were considered museum exhibits rather than for everyday use.
One stunning example of this is the Ardebil carpet from Persia, which dates from the 16th century and is housed at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. Considered one of the world’s most precious rugs, this exquisite piece contains more than 32 million hand-tied knots.
It was the 19th century and the booming days of empire before large scale imports of Oriental rugs and carpets really took off and these beautiful objects started to become more widely available. Even then, however, they could only be afforded by the more affluent members of society or were bought by state offices and institutions.
London was at the heart of this trade because of Britain’s strong ties with Persia and numerous other outposts in the empire, including India. The capital of the empire soon became the domestic centre and the international marketplace for buying and selling the finest oriental carpets and rugs.
Today, almost any one of the country’s great houses, stately homes or grand institutions, will have rugs or carpets from this period of Britain’s mercantile ambition and interests, which spread to every corner of the globe. London is still considered one of the main centres and is home to a huge number of warehouses stacked with a rich variety of Oriental rugs and carpets.
By the late 1800s, British and other European firms were investing in the rug industries, encouraging greater production as well as some standardization. A Manchester-based company, Ziegler & Company was one of the leading UK investors in the manufacture and export of carpets. Others followed, such as Oriental Carpet Manufacturers of London, with Persia, Turkey and India the main production centres for these and other investors.
The Shah of then Persia, Nasir al-Din was a great promoter of the rugs produced in his country and in 1876, in a brilliant piece of marketing, he presented Queen Victoria with fourteen rugs from Khurasan and Kurdistan. The carpets can still be seen on display in the Victoria and Albert museum.
Most carpets and rugs we see today in antique shops, at auction and in dealers’ rooms date from around this period. They are for the most part of excellent quality, with a richness of colour and many subtle hues and tones.