08 January 2022

Liberty of London - history of a famous design shop

Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917) was born in Bucks. He was employed by Messrs Farmer and Rogers in Regent St, following the hugely successful Inter­national Exhibition in London in May-Nov 1862. By 1874 he decided to start a business of his own. With a £2,000 loan from his fiancée Emma Blackmore’s father in 1875, he leased half a shop in Regent St, with 3 staff. His plans for the business centred on decorative arts and fabrics from distant lands.

The Regent St shop opened during 1875, at first selling only col­oured silks imported from the East. This proved so successful that Liberty repaid the loan, took over the other half of the shop and began to sell a much wider variety of goods from the Far and Near East. As the business grew, neighbouring properties were bought and added. In 1884 he introduced the costume department, directed by architect Edward William Godwin (1833–86), who was a founding mem­ber of The Costume Society. He and Arthur Liberty created in-house apparel to challenge the fashions of Paris.

Liberty wanted exotic Oriental and Moorish objects to sell, and he was delighted in time to welcome keen young designers who created exotica. With Christopher Dresser, Archibald Knox designed metal ware for the Silver Studio, which also supplied Liberty & Co.

In Nov 1885, Liberty brought villagers from India to stage a living village of Indian artisans. His Regent St emporium was already overflowing with Oriental metalwork and lacquer, exotic Eastern fabrics and medieval-ish German pewter art.

In 1885, Regent St serviced the growing demand for carpets and furniture. The basement was named the Eastern Bazaar, the site for Decorative Furnishing Objects. He named the prop­erty Chesham House, after the place in which he grew up. The shop became the most fash­ionable place to shop in London, and Liberty fabrics were used for both clothing and fur­nishings. Clients included famous Pre-Raphaelite artists.

Liberty's Great Marlborough St shop
Built 1924 and extended later.

Liberty's interior central atrium
surr­ounded by smaller furnished rooms

In the 1890s, Liberty built strong relationships with many English designers, including Archibald Knox, men who practised the Arts and Crafts style. By then Knox had become the principal designer for all of Liberty’s Celtic Revival metalwork and jewellery.

Liberty also helped develop Art Nouveau through his encouragement of the best designers. The company became associated with Art Nouv­eau to the extent that in Italy, Art Nouveau became known as Stile Liberty, in honour of the London shop.

In 1899, Liberty & Co showed two small collections of silver ob­jects and silver jewel­lery bearing their own assay mark, first at the shop and then at the 1899 Arts and Crafts Exhibition at New Gallery in 121 Regent St. This 1899 exhibit was even more special because it featured a William Morris retrospective.

Another factor introducing continental Art Nouveau to elegant English families was Liberty’s custom of buying products directly from Europe. Furniture was imported from France, ceramics were delivered from Hungary and WMF pewter from Germany arrived by the crate load. As long as the objects were well designed, would-be customers were happy with mass produced objects.

Importantly for me, Liberty worked with William Morris, who designed some of their best-known prints. Look at the link to the Dovecot Studios, founded in 1912 after the weavers had learned their craft at Morris’ Merton Abbey workshops in Wimbledon. In Morris’ day, art and fashion were inextricably linked, with women encour­aged to seek inspiration for new styles in the Pre-Raphaelite art of John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt etc. Women loos­ened corsets, bodices and waistlines in favour of the flowy styles whose influence lasted!

Liberty's collection of ornaments, fabric and objets d'art from around the world proved irresistible to a society fascinated by Jap­an and the East, and Liberty produced a social change in int­er­ior design and dress. 

Liberty prints

In 1922, the builders received £198,000 to build the splendid Great Marlborough St shop, designed by Edwin T Hall and Son. Rec­or­ds sh­ow­ed 24,000+ cubic feet of ship-timbers were used eg the HMS Impr­egnable and the HMS Hindustan, which measured the length and height of the Liberty building. The realisation of Arthur Lib­erty's original vision arrived in 1924, alas 7 years after he died.

The 1920s was a time of Tudor revival, the most English of archit­ecture, so the shop was engineered around 3 atria. Specifically designed to feel like a (rather stately) home, each atrium was surr­ounded by smaller rooms, complete with fireplaces and furnishings.

Always a source of craftsmanship, Liberty had a furniture workshop in Archway London. Run by Lawrence Turner, the workshop produced Liberty Arts and Crafts furniture and the intricately carved panels and pillars found throughout the shop. The craftsmen allowed the fantasy of ensuring that every ornament was a one-off.

Liberty’s statue stands at the ent­rance to his emporium. The building is now a Heritage-listed London icon and is still famed for its design & cultural collab­orat­ions. The dedicated in-house design studio is still at the heart of hand painting and of beautiful prints, some reworked from the archives.

The iconic shop in Lon­d­on’s West End was famous for its luxury goods, fashion, cosmetics, interior design, and for its graphic and floral prints. Sonia Del­aunays colourful abstract designs must have been very appealing;  her influence is everywhere. Plus Liberty played a major role in the popularity of art styles like the Arts and Craft movement; six floors of contemporary design and beautiful wares from the world's greatest crafts-people.
Linda Parry's 2013 book, William Morris Textiles
Liberty involved William Morris and other famous C19th artists in his fabric designs. 





34 comments:

Train Man said...

My wife thought Liberty was fantastic, me less so. But is it still open?

Andrew said...

So that is where the famous Liberty print comes from. There was a time when I thought Liberty was an American company, so popular are the prints there.

Joe said...

I am pleased you said the amazing building was heritage listed, but I cannot find the details.

Hels said...

Train Man

Gosh, I hope so. As with many other large luxury department shops, two years of unpredictable lock downs have done a great deal of damage to Liberty. As far as the newspapers were predicting, Liberty lost millions _over the counter sales_ and salaries. On the other hand, they enjoyed strong growth _on line_ in home wares, fabrics and beauty items. So we will have to see what 2022 brings.

Hels said...

Andrew

Liberty of London created and exported amazing cotton printed textiles, especially florals. In fact we could say that Liberty floral prints lead in the company’s designer workshops and are best known around the world.

Personally speaking I knew nothing about fashion in the 1960s, but I could pick a Liberty printed dress with my eyes closed.

Hels said...

Joe

here is the listing we require:
Heritage Category: Listed Building, Grade:II*
List Entry Number: 1357064
Date first listed: 14-Dec-1972
Statutory Address: MESSRS LIBERTY AND CO LTD (TUDOR BUILDING), GREAT MARLBOROUGH STREET W1
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1357064

Heritage listing of old buildings, is critically important, isn't it?

Rosemary said...

Whenever I'm in London a visit to Liberty's is a must. I am fortunate to own a much loved piece of Archibald Knox Cymric silver which is enamelled in his trademark peacock colours of green and blue.

Hels said...

Rosemary

Sadly I haven't been out of Australia since my last pre-Covid winter holiday in July 2019. But I treasure the memories, photos and blog posts that will remain for ever - particularly Liberty's. Bless you for owning one piece of Archibold Knox silver.. I adore his work, as you will see in _Was Archibald Knox the finest Art Nouveau designer in Britain?_

https://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2014/04/was-archibald-knox-finest-art-nouveau.html

DUTA said...

Liberty - the luxury London based Department Store, famous for its floral print fabrics, looks beautiful outside and inside.
I visited the place once, just to 'indulge my senses', as they say.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I was lucky because on my first trip to London a friend sent me on an errand to Liberty's, so I did not miss this fascinating store. His mother in Japan was a hobby quilter, and wanted some of their fabrics. Apparently this is a thing, because that had packages of various printed fabrics already made up for this purpose.
--Jim

Fun60 said...

I love visiting Liberty's especially at Christmas when the store is looking its best. Didn't manage it in 2021 but here's hoping I'll be there in 2022.

Hels said...

DUTA

Agreed. Years ago, I was first attracted by Liberty's internal and external the architecture. But that was when the "indulging of the senses" occurred, an excellent description of the colours, textures, smells and exotica. Even the Art Deco cafe tastes were special.

Hels said...

Parnassus

Britons' taste for Moorish carpets, Indian silks, Chinese antiques etc was peaking in the late 19th century and was beautifully served by Liberty and his colleagues. But they were luxury items, only available to families with money. So I am surprised and delighted that throughout the 20th century and even now, as your friend proved, Liberty still has a large market for luxury imports.

Hels said...

Fun60

Agreed. Holiday decorations are at their most attractive, holidays put people in a relaxed mood, gift giving puts people into a generous mood etc.. etc.. Covid is looking terrible still, so we can but hope for a healthy 2022.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I used to love visiting Liberty's with its wobbly floors - and beautiful materials ... from which I had dresses made - gorgeous (they were, not sure about me!). I haven't been in for ages ... they had a tv programme on how Liberty deal with Christmas - they used to start planning now for December 2022. Thanks for this overview ... I wonder how it will cope in the years ahead. Cheers Hilary

Hels said...

Hilary

I lived in the UK in the early 1970s and remember the fascination with Liberty's very well. Joe worked for the NHS and was paid sod all, but those dresses were something to plan your wardrobe around, yes! I added a photo of Liberty prints, just to tug at your heart strings.

Mandy said...

How fascinating. After all this time, I've still never been to Liberty of London and had no idea it was named after a man, as opposed to a concept

Britta said...

Dear Helen, thank you for all the information I now got about Liberty - a shop I always visit when I am in London. First time ever was in the Seventies, I bought a blouse that was expensive for me then - and the first floral print I (consciously) wore. I love the building, the atmosphere!
As a garden lover of course I visited London Red House and Kelmscott manor - ravishing!!!

PS: Maybe you can help me with a blog problem: I tried to add you to my blogroll on the right side of my blog - but though I once knew how to do that now I can only put you on my blog list, which is not the same - as a visual type I want to see a new post popping up at one glance on my blog.

bazza said...

My younger daughter, Laura, worked in Liberty for several years. She was mainly in Way In Menswear where she served hundreds of famous people from rock stars to kings! Bruce Johnson of the Beach Boys invited her and us to see them play at Wembley Arena and gave us all back-stage passes. When we arrived home from the concert the phone was ringing. It was Bruce asking if we had enjoyed the concert!
Liberty still sells William Morris designed wallpaper.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s adroitly absquatulate Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

mem said...

I remember once being a student from country Queensland and being in Brisbane to go to university . I made ( and still do ) all my own clothes and was enjoying a trip to Gardham's , then Brisbane premier fabric shop . My eye went to a lovely voile printed with yellow flowers , the like of which I had never seen before . This was my introduction to Liberty fabrics . I bought some and very carefully made a blouse which I wore in a portrait my uncle took of me for my mothers 40 th birthday . I still have the picture and I often smile remembering my first introduction to liberty which is unsurpassed in the quality of the cloth as well as the glorious prints

CherryPie said...

I love the architecture on that old building. The liberty designs were of their time :-)

Hels said...

Mandy

welcome back :) I know you travel quite a lot, but post-Covid you must explore Liberty of London. It is a very special experience.

Hels said...

Britta

I am not sure if your 1970s printed blouse still fits you, but I would keep it as a Liberty treasure in any case. Now that Laura Ashley printed dresses are back in fashion again, I am wearing my 1969 dream dresses again :)

Re the blog problem, it depends which blogger you are using. In mine, I go into:
Design,
Layout,
Blog list gadget,
Edit,
Configure blog list



Hels said...

bazza

In art history or architectural history, we have all read about London's most impressive buildings. And visited the sites as well. But there is nothing like a close, personal connection to a facility to make it both important and memorable in your family. My father was the water engineer for the 1956 Olympic Games and I will never EVER forget the swimming, diving and water polo events for the rest of my life.

Liberty is very wise selling William Morris designed wallpaper. It is timeless.

Hels said...

mem

Your introduction to Liberty fabrics was quite fortunate. Unless you knew about Liberty in advance, there was no way you might have looked for it, in even the best fabric shop in all of Brisbane. Even better, a carefully made, beautiful blouse was recorded for history in family photos :)

Your children and grandchildren won't believe you were so lovely. Nor will they believe that fashions back in the late 1960s-early 1970s were so gorgeous.

Hels said...

CherryPie

The spectacular Tudor revival architecture certainly captured the eye in later 19th century London, including or especially Liberty of London. I am not sure if we would have got away with it in Australia.

bazza said...

Hels, your response has reminded me of our neighbours in Forest Gate, East London. Many years ago the man was an engineer who built the factory machines for the film I'm All Right Jack with Peter Sellars. The machines were in a factory making a popular confection and they looked like they were vomiting out the mixture. The family moved to Melbourne 55 years ago but we are still in touch (they just moved to Philip Island!)

Hels said...

bazza

The 1956 film was a parody on British industrial life back then, right in the time of the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. The same time as Laura Ashley was coming into popularity. And just as Liberty began opening regional stores in the UK, outside London. The more personal connections, the better :)

We have a holiday shack in Phillip Island, by the way :)

Handmade in Israel said...

I worked for a short time at 'She' magazine many years ago. The offices were very near to Liberty. The shop was a wonderful place to spend some time during my lunch hour.

Hels said...

Lisa

what a great experience... working for a famous British feminist magazine and spending lunchtime in one of London's most wonderful design shops.

I lived in and near London for two years, and still think of the city very fondly.

Rosemary said...

When I was much younger I was an avid collector Arts & Crafts silver and pottery. Today the prices are through the roof - when I was collecting very few people were interested or knew about it. Now with all of the antique shows on the TV everyone is so much more aware.

Hels said...

Rosemary

me too. When I was working full time, I had the income and passion for porcelain and silver art. Then when I reduced the number of hours at work, AND the auction prices went up and up as you saw, I had to stop collecting art *sob*. Now I collect art and history books, especially first editions.

Dtaylor67 said...

nice blog, Thank you for sharing.-

It will help you :-
mens ties and pocket squares

Hels said...

Dtaylor

I am a historian and I do read texts of course, but I prefer to analyse historical eras visually - via paintings, films, silver and gold work, porcelain, fashions, visible architecture etc etc. Welcome aboard.