"There’s a feeling of responsibility, of taking this good fortune and making a derivation of it, making the historical relevant to your time."

Left: The Mosaic Collection, Luke Irwin Rugs, 2016

Since the discovery of a Roman mosaic in the garden of his Wiltshire home, rug designer Luke Irwin has been on something of an extraordinary journey. The mosaic revealed the location of what is now known as the Deverill Villa, and for Irwin – a designer whose inspiration has always been found in the annals of history – the extraordinary circumstances were, “beyond serendipity”.

In this in-depth interview, he talks about the find of a lifetime, and the effect it had on him – as a history buff and as a working artist.

Above: Luke Irwin in his Wiltshire garden

It’s often said that you should look upwards when exploring somewhere new. Surely, following this discovery, the opposite has become true for you.

It’s true that since we’ve discovered what we’ve discovered in our garden, I’m always looking down, because I’m always looking for a piece of Roman masonry or pottery. But it’s not where you look, it’s just the simple act of looking. In this age of communication and isolation and communication, which is sort of spurious, everyone is walking down a street looking at his or her phone and we’ve forgotten how to look.

There was a time, years ago, when my wife was taking the mickey out of me as I was sitting in the garden just opening my eyes and just looking, because I was trying to count how many shades of green. There were thirty shades of green! But this is the point. When you start looking, you start seeing. When you start seeing, then you start to be able to form an opinion as to what aesthetically pleases you. Looking is the key to it, but most of us have forgotten how to do it.

What brought you to this area? What makes it a special place for you?

Above: The Deverill Valley, Wiltshire, UK

When we came to look at this house for the first time, we turned into this gate and turned up this little drive and my wife started shaking saying, “I have to live here”. We hadn’t even seen the house yet. There is something in the air. This is the most beautiful, unspoilt river valley – all hidden away. You turn off the motorway and it’s like turning from 2016 into 1950, so unspoilt are the villages in this valley.

What is extraordinary is that in the last 50 years there have been as many owners as there were in the previous 900. There was Queen Maud, who gave it to the Abbey of Bec in Normandy, who held onto it until 1486, and then it was given to King’s College Cambridge who held onto it until 1956 and then sold it to the tenant farmers. Just the other side of the valley is Longleat, so you have the great long line of Marquises of Bath with their vast estate. But here, there have been no nobles living here tearing it up. So the land has been unspoilt and untouched and therefore you can have discoveries, such as we just had.

What do you think it is about the valley that brought Roman settlement?

You are not far from Bath, and where the Romans were so clever is that they integrated the local deities into their pantheon of Gods. Bath was known as Aqua Sulis. Sulis was the Celtic goddess of water and fertility, but in Roman Britain she becomes Sulis Minerva, the Roman goddess. On the hill that overlooks where we live there was a vast temple, and six miles away there is another vast temple. We are a mile from a Roman road, which leads from Cirencester – the most important Roman town after London – straight down to Poole, an enormous ceramics base. So you are on a direct communications road in very fertile territory. When these villas were built they were status symbols, and it’s funny – when you go back in time the scale of time it’s is almost like a concertina: you go back 50 years and it feels very blasé, but if you go back 150 years it feels very alien. The Romans chose it because someone had probably chosen it before them. You have water, pasture and hills around you, defending you from possible invaders and the wind.

Above: Luke Irwin's Wiltshire home and site of Deverill villa

Can you explain how the discovery happened?

A year ago, we were having builders laying cable down to build a shower. Twenty yards from our front door is a barn, and our son likes playing table tennis, so while the builders were there I asked them to put electric into this barn. The builder said he could hang a cable, and me being me asked him to dig a trench, to protect our view. So they dug a trench, and suddenly there’s a cry of “Oh my God! We found something!” And what has been revealed is this mosaic floor, which they call a Geoche – like a basket weave.

I’ve always been interested in history of every description, of epochs and how reigns come to an end and others begin. From what I knew, there had been no history of the mosaic as an art form in Britain between the Roman period and probably the mid-nineteenth century, and if this was mid-nineteenth century, what was it doing 19 inches under the ground? So I called Wiltshire County Council archaeological department. What you can see from the field is that there are undulations in the landscape and the usual guess would be that these are caused by medieval buildings… until you find a mosaic. When you find a mosaic you know that this long predates anything medieval.

Above: Mosaic discovered

That first moment of realisation must have been quite something…

There was this frisson of excitement, which I had previously experienced when I was six or seven and been taken to Pompeii for the first time – that tangibility of seeing the Pompeii graffiti… this is not dry anymore; this is alive. With anything to do with history, you need to spark the imagination. You need something that actually leads us into humanity before our time, and with this it throws up a thousand things that are not historical: who the emperor was, when did the building collapsed…

But these things are not of such interest. What is of more interest is the consistency of humanity and how we now have the exact same spectrum of emotions as we did then. They might prefer one colour to another, but let’s face it – they had under floor heating, they had running water on the first and second floor, and we lost all of this for 1900 years. That’s what it’s like with civilisations; they come and they go, and we can see in the Saxon times, through the church, Medieval times, Tudor times, contemporary times – through all of this, legal documents are all still written in Latin. Why is this? Why do we think this is the language of authority and power, still deep in our psyche?

We lose sight of our own humanity through the arrogance of the present, where we think we are better than anything that has gone before. But in fact, apart from technology and probably medicine, we are not. We are the same.

From that first discovery, everything seems to have snowballed. Are you seeing your house in a different light?

Learning to look has never been more apposite than in this instance. What you could see as an old bit of pottery suddenly takes on a bigger significance. When you see little cubes on the ground, you think that this is Roman, and when you discover an oyster shell in landlocked Wiltshire you discover the tangibility. When you pick up an oyster and think that the last person that put it up to his lips and slurped it down was Roman, or a Britain under Rome who was extremely rich and powerful…

In front of our kitchen window we had a pot of very tired Geraniums. Dr David Roberts, archaeologist at Heritage England, who is deeply involved with the project kept coming back to this thing, and I told him it was here before I bought the house and he asked me to tell him about it. I called the lady who used to own the house who told me she’d left them there on purpose, and I asked her if she bought it, but she said they were there when they bought the house in the 1980s. I asked Dr Roberts why he was so interested and he said he thought it might be a Roman child’s coffin. Again, this is about eyes being open and accumulation of knowledge. It is seeing things in a different way – taking a knowledge you have for topography, seeing undulations in a field and being able to build a story of what is going on there. To me it is quite staggering that what is effectively a palace that can lie unknown and undetected for over a thousand years. It is quite extraordinary.

Left: A moving find, a child's coffin

It’s interesting that you contacted the archaeological authorities as soon as you realised what you had. Many people would just plough on through, almost literally. What was Dr Roberts’ reaction when he first arrived in Wiltshire?

He turned up in early mid-March 2015 with a team of students and you could feel his palpable excitement about the topography, the mosaic and the location, and you could tell that he felt that something was there. So he began doing geophysics, which is effectively putting rods in the ground and zapping down electric currents to the rocks and bouncing them back up so that you could see various rooms.

By late April 2105, what is plotted is that they are going to do this exploratory excavation, and so they select from the geophysics what they can find in these trenches and what has been left behind. Down they go and they hit walls, floors and there was one fellow who was six foot four who had disappeared deep down into this floor, and one of my children found a coin that was from the era of Constantine IV, and the other was very disappointed to be given an old oyster shell, which I tried to explain was more interesting that a coin because somebody ate it.

There were sheep bones and animal bones, and you could see where the butchers knife had carved it, and there was pottery dotted everywhere and smashed up mosaics in there, along with hundreds of oyster shells – a rich man’s food – brought up in big barrels from the South coast. One of the most interesting trenches of all was one called a “robber trench”, thus named because somebody knew there was stone in this field and they pulled it out to start building the nearby church and the manor house. 

Found in this trench was the green-glazed pottery, which is medieval. Imagine – some guy comes along to pull out stone for the church, and he has come with his lunch and put his plate down, and then his plate sits under two and a half feet of earth for a thousand years.

This is what is beneath us; this is what is around us all the time. Someone has been living where you live for well over 10,000 years. It’s an astounding thing to think, and what throws you again is this sense of common humanity – this bridge through humanity.

Left: Mosaic pieces discovered, also known as tesserae

Isn’t there something unbelievably serendipitous about a high-end floor designer uncovering a high-end Roman floor creation in his garden?

I mean, it’s ridiculous that twenty yards from your front door, when you design rugs, which are the mosaics of today, you find a 2,000-year-old luxury floor design. It’s beyond serendipity. But funnily enough, my first thought wasn’t we should do a collection based on mosaics. It was much more historical fascination – an imagining of lives lived and a community that was there before.

Wasn’t it tempting just to throw out a straightforward mosaic collection and be done with it?

When I decided this was something that we needed to explore, the last thing I wanted to do was do a pastiche of Roman mosaic. I did not want Orpheus and Eurydice and Bacchus and dolphins and dogs and Diana the huntress. I didn’t want that because that is not doing justice to what I do or what we discovered. This has to be taking something and making it relevant for our age, and the nuance of our aesthetic desire and understanding. If we just did Orpheus and Eurydice, it would be meaningless. So the idea would be to develop a design that we felt could work in a modern environment.

From what I understand, when you’re developing something new you get inspiration, quite often from history, and you go away and study it a bit more, and through that method you come up with the beginnings of your next collection.

My primary interest is history and cultural developments – how the world works and lessons from history – closely followed by football. So I do things that interest me. The historical research into any collection and the background of that collection is, first and foremost, because I’m interested. You then try and create something which you think will be aesthetically pleasing, and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but at least you’ve been engaged. And if you are always doing something that visually you like, you are always ahead of the curve – you’re not thinking that this season the colour is all green or orange, or that we have to do geometrics.

Above: Cumulae Caractacus from The Mosaic Collection

Presumably, the technical process undertaken for The Mosaic Collection has similarities to your Tarantella and Osymandiascollections?

Yes, and more so. For the last ten years there has been a vogue for distressed-looking rugs.  With what we’re doing, because it’s based in essence on ancient buildings and ancient mosaics but with contemporary design, it needs to look a little bit distressed. It is not contrived; this is part of the look of the entire thing.

It is not with any great sort of pretentiousness or pomposity, but I love the idea that you have a mosaic rug in your drawing room it will transport you back, and you’ll think a thousand years ago there was a guy like me who was a senator or a governor or a general or whatever, and he had something like this – but that was of his time and this is of mine.

You’re trying to have bridges of thought throughout history, and not the arrogance of the present, where everything that went before was somehow a little bit underdeveloped or backward compared to how brilliant we are now. Our capacity is phenomenal, it’s just that at this moment it is focused on technology and medicine.

How does it feel when you get the first samples?

You have in your mind’s eye what you are trying to achieve. Imagine you are a brilliant lawyer, and in your mind’s eye you have your idea of your dream house. You are trying to get to the symptoms – you are trying to draw it out, and often you don’t have the vocabulary or the articulacy to say, as the genius lawyer, what is in my mind’s eye. And the same is often true, even with this very collaborative creative process between my long time creative collaborator Vikram Kapoor and I. There is the verbal and there is the physical, and so you wait for this little package to arrive, and you wonder, is the translation of the verbal going to be there for you to see in the physical? So this package arrives and it is like Christmas morning. Are you going to get the Raleigh Chopper, or is it going to be a sense of disappointment? There is a frisson of excitement, and you never know quite what is going to be in that package. It’s a moment of truth but it gives you the stimulus to keep doing what you’re doing.

Above: Samples arriving at the Pimlico showroom

How did you feel when you received the box of Mosaic Collection samples?

I was thrilled, because you see the translation of what it is that you wanted to achieve.  With this because it is on so many levels – it is on a cultural level, on a philosophical, historical, design levels, manufacturing – all of it is marrying and coming together. I may be the one fool shouting, but to me it’s fascinating. It’s the idea of bridges through time.

There’s one thing that I love, and that was an inscription on a Roman bridge. It was very simple and very literal and it says, ‘We have built this bridge which will last forever’. You take it onto a metaphysical plane and it is a bridge of humanity, and we constantly refer back to the past.

Is the sense of completion, what with the finding of the mosaics, more powerful than in previous collections?

Yes, there is a total sense of completion. My family and I had the great fortune to buy and live in this house for our pleasure and lifetimes, and that’s how most of us live in contentment, which is often the hardest thing to achieve of all. But there’s a feeling of responsibility, of taking this good fortune and making a derivation of it, making the historical relevant to your time. Therein lies the completion.

You must be looking forward to seeing the mosaic lying on the floor in your house – the floor that you now know to be original Roman marble.

I’m not convinced I’ve completed a circle of any form of historical value. For me, and within me, it’s wonderful that the circle is completed, but it is not necessarily of any historical relevance. But this is trying to make something come to life again, to make it tangible again, but for our own time and not a replica of a time gone by.

Left: Claudius rug from The Mosaic Collection on original Roman marble floor


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