News. The Donegal Carpet

4th of February, 2019

A path can be trodden on them, seldom thought of at all, for years at a time. But to expert conservators Juliet Campbell and Liza Gunning, carpets are the unsung heroes of many great houses.

“They’re quite an honour to work on,” Campbell explains, from the temporary workshop space the pair have set up in Dumfries House, an 18th-century Palladian structure in Ayrshire, Scotland. The temporary closure of the grounds here has allowed them to undertake essential conservation work on the 1920s Donegal carpet situated in its Great Steward’s Dining Room – a replica of the original Axminster carpet designed by Robert Adam as a creative homage to the ornate plasterwork on the ceiling above it. “People really overlook carpets. Of everything in a room, they get the most wear and tear. Some of the carpets at Dumfries House are hundreds of years old – it’s amazing that they have survived.”

Experts in their field, Campbell and Gunning are based out of the Tetley Workshop in Devon – a centre for the conservation of such pieces, founded by Heather and Jonathan Tetley in the early 1990s. “Conservation is quite different from restoration,” they point out: while restoration will see a piece returned to its former aesthetic glory, sometimes using invasive methods, conservators are more concerned with strengthening and supporting it, preserving its hard-earned history for the enjoyment of generations to come – something truly valued at Dumfries House.

Lisa Gunning, a carpet conservator working with Tetley Workshop, sets about repairing the 1920s Donegal carpet

Physically and logistically demanding though it may be, there is a meditative quality to this work. Their tools are quite ordinary – “we use scissors, needles, sheep’s wool. Pliers, on occasion,” Gunning explains – though they do concede to working with some newer materials, such as polyester threads. “We live in a modern world. These touches become part of the continued story of a piece.” “That’s the nature of our work,” Campbell concludes. “Things often change; approaches to conservation change. It’s what we feel is best practice, now.”

Words: Ananda Pellerin and Maisie Skidmore

Photography: Brian Doherty