Liberty & Co.
Liberty & Co. (Est. 1876-Present) When Sir Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917) was honored with a knighthood in 1913 for his contributions promoting the decorative arts in Britain, he gave many interviews. In one with The Daily Chronicle, he discussed the success of Liberty & Co., the company he founded in 1876. He said that the delicate fabrics with subtle shades he sold had become known world over as “Liberty” colors. At the end of the interview, he stated, “I am afraid that in this and other respects I have become a mere adjective.”
Lasenby Liberty, an English merchant, opened his first shop, Fast India House, on Regent Street in London. He imported Oriental goods that helped define the Aesthetic taste in London. His shop also stocked Arts and Crafts goods. In 1890, he opened a branch of his shop in Paris.
In 1899, the firm presented a line of Celtic-revival Cymric jewelry to the public. Designed by artists with ties to the Arts and Crafts movement, e.g., Archibald Knox and Arthur Gaskin, Cymric jewels were not handmade items; they were mass-produced incorporating silver in the design.
The pieces were affordable and, as one jewelry historian puts, “Liberty & Co. had the merit of bringing ‘art jewels’ to the public at large, combining the design ideal of the Arts and Crafts movement with high quality mass production, thus producing beautiful and fashionable jewels which were at the same time affordable.”
At home and abroad, Liberty successfully marketed the jewels making the company’s name synonymous with the Arts and Crafts style. The jewels were mostly produced in silver and featured hand-hammered surfaces. Semi-precious stones like blister pearls and citrines, as well as brightly colored enamels, embellished them. The pieces often featured whiplash lines, flowers and vines, or Celtic knots and geometric and linear interlacing.
Liberty also introduced Art Nouveau to London shoppers, stocking such objects as chairs by Richard Riemerschmid and ceramics by the Hungarian firm, Zsolnay.
Arthur Lasenby Liberty was born August 13, 1843 in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, England, and was the son of a draper. He began work at sixteen for an uncle who sold lace, and then later for another uncle who sold wine.
By 1859, he was apprenticed to a draper, but instead took a job at Farmer and Rogers, a firm that specialized in women’s fashion. He quickly rose to the post of warehouse manager.
After Farmer and Rogers refused to make him a partner, he opened his aforementioned first shop and in a short time re-named it Liberty & Co. There he sold ornaments, fabrics and miscellaneous objets d’art from the Far East.
Liberty & Co. initially provided an eclectic mix of popular styles, but went on to develop a fundamentally different style closely linked to the 1890s Aesthetic Movement, called Art Nouveau (the “new art”). The company became synonymous with this new style to the extent that in Italy, Art Nouveau became known as Stile Liberty named after the London shop.
The company’s printed and dyed fabrics, particularly silks and satins, were notable for their subtle and “artistic” colors and highly esteemed as dress material, especially during the decades from 1890 to 1920.
In 1884, Liberty introduced its costume department, directed by Edward William Godwin (1833–1886), a distinguished architect and founding member of the Costume Society. He and Arthur Liberty created in-house apparel to rival the Paris fashions of the day.
In 1885, Liberty acquired 142–144 Regent Street to house the public’s increasing demand for carpets and furniture. The basement was named the Eastern Bazaar and was a sales floor for what was described as “decorative furnishing objects.”
Arthur named his newly acquired property Chesham House, after the place in which he grew up. The store became the most fashionable place to shop in London, and Liberty fabrics were used for both clothing and furnishings. Some of its clientele were foreign-born and included some famous Pre-Raphaelite artists.
In November 1885, Liberty brought forty-two villagers from India to stage a living village of Indian artisans. The stunt combined with Liberty’s specialty in Oriental goods, in particular imported Indian silks, generated both publicity for the store. However, it was a disaster commercially and publicly, with concern about the way the villagers were put on display.
During the 1890s, Liberty built strong relationships with many English designers. Many of these designers, including Archibald Knox, created works in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles. Liberty helped develop Art Nouveau through its encouragement of these designers and the company became associated with these new styles.
Among the firm’s imports was German pewter (Kayserzinn). The firm’s pewter production began in November 1901 with items manufactured for Liberty by W.H. Haseler. The pieces were interchangeably marked, “Tudric Pewter by Liberty & Co.”, “English Pewter,” and “Solkets.”
The company insisted on the anonymity of their designers and records have been destroyed over the years so it’s often hard to determine the designer for a particular piece. Most Art Nouveau production ended in 1914 but some continued into the 1920s.
From 1902 a large range of designs were produced with glass liners and decanter bodies being provided by James Powell and Sons of Whitefriars and glass from James Couper & Sons of Glasgow’s “Clutha” range.
Both Tudric and Cymric were produced right into the 1930’s but it was during the early years, particularly between 1902 and 1905, that saw the most accomplished and daring designs.
Arthur Liberty died in 1917. By the time of his death he had amassed a fortune and owned a manor house and an estate in Buckinghamshire. His gravestone was designed by Archibald Knox.
In 1924, the company had become so successful that it undertook constructing a magnificent mock-Tudor building to house the store. Designed by Edwin T. Hall and his son, Edwin S. Hall, timbers from the vessels HMS Hindustan and HMS Impregnable were used to build and furnish the building in solid oak and teak using authentic and original Tudor techniques.
The Tudor building of 1927 prompted a change in the focus of antiques, featuring examples of Stuart, Jacobean and earlier oak furniture with some Georgian pieces. It was Liberty’s pioneering products that appealed to the artistic tastes of the day and have become desirable antiques.
The Arts & Crafts furniture, in solid oak, or mahogany inlaid with colored woods and mother-of-pearl; the Cymric silver and Tudric pewter designed by Archibald Knox and others; the jewelry and buckles of Knox and Jessie M King; the Clutha glass and Cordofan candlesticks designed by Christopher Dresser; and the ceramics of William Moorcroft and CH Brannam are the items most eagerly sought by collectors and museums at home and abroad.
Liberty of London Prints, the wholesale company, was formed in 1939 to take advantage of the growing demand for Liberty designs and fabrics. By now, Liberty was also firmly established as the supplier of must-have silk scarves.
After the end of World War II, Liberty continued its tradition of fashionable and eclectic design. All departments had collections of both contemporary and traditional designs. New designers were promoted and their designs often included those that continued to represent the Liberty tradition for handcrafted work.
In 1955, Liberty began opening several regional stores in other UK cities; the first of these was in Manchester. Subsequent shops opened in Bath, Brighton, Chester, York, and Norwich.
During the 1960s, extravagant and Eastern influences once again became fashionable as well as the Art Deco style and Liberty adapted to it using furnishing designs from its archive.
After the Art Nouveau Exhibition was held in Paris in the 1960s, Liberty Art Nouveau designs were redrawn and colored to form the acclaimed Lotus Collection, which was sold in London, Paris, and Rome. This placed Liberty firmly at the forefront of the Art Nouveau revival.
It was in 1967 that Liberty first used the iconic Ianthe print. Based on a wallpaper design from 1902, it was an instant success and later proved to be an inspiration for the Iphis design.
In 1970, Liberty sold the print works and Liberty fabrics began to be printed by other British companies and in the Far East.
In 1996, Liberty announced the closing of all of its department stores outside London and focused on small shops at airports.
The company remained in family ownership until 2000. Liberty’s London store was sold for £41.5 million and then leased back by the firm in 2009 to pay off debts ahead of the sale, in 2010, in which Liberty was taken over by the private equity firm, BlueGem Capital in a deal worth £32million.
After the store was leased back, it was modernized and fabrics and oriental goods became less prominent and greater emphasis was placed on luxury accessories, furnishings, and “idiosyncratic” fashion by international designers.
Liberty’s history of collaborative projects – from William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the nineteenth century to Yves Saint Laurent and Dame Vivienne Westwood in the twentieth – has continued into the 21st. Recent collaborations include brands such as Nike, Dr. Martens, Hello Kitty, Barbour, House of Hackney, Vans, Onia, Manolo Blahnik, Uniqlo and Superga.
In 2013, Liberty was the subject of a three-part documentary showing the store in the run-up to Christmas. A second series is aired the following year and featured four, one hour-long episodes based on six months’ worth of footage.
In 2015, Liberty celebrated its 140th birthday by launching a new print called Mayflower.
At Liberty’s, Middle Eastern and Asian goods determine the character of the store. Emblematic of this is the store’s tradition of arts and crafts ideals that reject factory production in favor of hand craft that adds beauty to everyday items.
Arthur Lasenby Liberty’s ambition became the reform of dress and home furnishings along “artistic” lines. As an entrepreneur, he found ways of supplying an expanding market with exotic, handmade goods in a retail environment that evoked an oriental bazaar rather than a conventional department store.
“I was determined not to follow existing fashion but to create new ones.”―Arthur Lasenby Liberty