A fixture in the London shopping scene, Liberty is a department store in Great Marlborough Street, in the West End of London. It sells highly curated selections of women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, make-up and perfume, jewelry, accessories, furniture and furnishings, stationery and gifts. The firm is well known for its floral and graphic prints.
I love any business with a great history and didactic information in a store window. They could just as well be showing their product line for sale, but they choose to edify. That’s my kinda store. Especially when it’s Liberty of London!
While the exterior of this classic London stop has remained in its mock Tudor style best, the interior and the product lines have changed vastly, even in my lifetime. While I prefer the way the store was when I first visited it with my mother in the 1980s, I have no doubt the management knows how to keep the store vital. I always enjoy a visit to this lovely emporium on any trip to London.
Before this summer, the last time I was at Liberty was in the early 2000s with my then 11-year-old red-headed son. At that time, Paula Pryke had a flower shop at the Liberty main entrance. It was dynamic! Her shop is gone and the store still has a ghost of a flower shop at its front door. But, I miss seeing Paula Pryke’s gorgeous arrangements there. He was less interested in Liberty than in going in and out of tube stations and traveling by train.
Liberty was created by Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who was born in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, in 1843. His father was a draper and, beginning work at 16, he was apprenticed to a draper. Later, Liberty took a job at Farmer and Rogers, a women’s fashions specialist in Regent Street, rising quickly up the ranks.
He was employed by Messrs Farmer and Rogers in 1862, the year of the International Exhibition. By 1874, inspired by his 10 years of service, he decided to start a business of his own, which he did the next year.
With a £2,000 loan from his future father-in-law, Liberty took the lease of half a shop at 218a Regent Street with three staff members. His shop opened in 1875 selling ornaments, fabric and objets d’art from Japan and the East.
Liberty hadn’t wanted to open just another store — he dreamed of an “Eastern Bazaar” in London that could fundamentally change homeware and fashion. Naming his new shop “East India House,” his collection of ornaments, fabrics and objects d’art from the Far East captured the attention of London, already in the crux of orientalist fervor.
It only took 18 months for Liberty to repay his loan, purchase the second half of the store, and begin to add neighbouring properties to his portfolio. From the beginning, the store also imported antiques, with the original V&A museum actually purchasing pieces of Eastern embroidery and rugs for its collection. As the business grew, neighboring properties were bought and added.
In 1884, he introduced the costume department, directed by Edward William Godwin (1833–86), a distinguished architect and a founding member of The Costume Society. Godwin and Liberty created in-house apparel to challenge the fashions of Paris.
In 1885, 142–144 Regent Street was acquired and housed the ever-increasing demand for carpets and furniture. The basement was named the Eastern Bazaar, and it was the vending place for what was described as “decorative furnishing objects”.
Liberty renamed the 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 included famous Pre-Raphaelite artists.
To show the kind of innovative approach Liberty had for his business, in November of 1885, he brought 42 villagers from India to stage a living village of Indian artisans.
Liberty’s specialised in Oriental goods, in particular imported Indian silks, and the aim of the display was to generate both publicity and sales for the store.
During the 1890s, Liberty built strong relationships with many English designers. Some of these designers, including Archibald Knox, practiced the artistic styles we now call Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau. Liberty helped develop Art Nouveau in England through his encouragement of such designers. The company became associated with this new style, to the extent that even today in Italy, Art Nouveau became known as the Stile Liberty, after the London shop.
In 1882, author and playwright Oscar Wilde went on a tour of the United States, bringing with him a wardrobe full of clothes from Liberty, creating a demand for the store’s fashions with Americans. Wilde was obviously a huge fan of Liberty.
The iconic Tudor revival building was built by Liberty so that business could continue while renovations were being completed on the other premises. This great building was constructed in 1924 from the timbers of two ships: HMS Impregnable (formerly HMS Howe) and HMS Hindustan.
HMS Impregnable (c.1900), one of the two ships used to build Liberty
The emporium was designed by Edwin Thomas Hall and his son, Edwin Stanley Hall. They designed the building at the height of the 1920s fashion for Tudor revival.
In 1922, the builders had been given a lump sum of £198,000 to construct it, which they did from the timbers of two ancient ‘three-decker’ battle ships. Records show more than 24,000 cubic feet of ships timbers were used including their decks now being the shop flooring: The HMS Impregnable – built from 3040 100-year-old oaks from the New Forest – and the HMS Hindustan, which measured the length and height of the famous Liberty building.
The ships were not Liberty’s only association with warfare. Carved memorials line the department store’s old staircase pay tribute to the Liberty staff who lost their lives fighting in WWII for a different kind of liberty – freedom from the regimes of the Axis powers.
One only need to look up to the roof , upon which stands a marvel of a gilded copper weathervane. Standing four feet tall and weighing 112 pounds, this golden ship recreates The Mayflower, the English vessel famous in American history for taking pilgrims to the new world in 1620.
The interior of the shop was designed around three light wells that form the main focus es of the building. Each of these wells was surrounded by smaller rooms to create a cosy feeling. Many of the rooms had fireplaces and some of them still exist.
Liberty of London was designed to feel like a home, with each atrium was surrounded by smaller rooms, complete with fireplaces and furnishings.
Ever the purveyor of craftsmanship, Arthur 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 store. The craftsmen allowed his fantasy, ensuring every ornament was a one-off – paving the way for discovery.
Sadly, Arthur died seven years before the building’s completion and so never saw his dream realised. But, his statue stands proudly at our Flower Shop entrance to welcome you warmly into his emporium of wonder.
The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner was very critical of the building’s architecture, saying: “The scale is wrong, the symmetry is wrong. The proximity to a classical façade put up by the same firm at the same time is wrong, and the goings-on of a store behind such a façade (and below those twisted Tudor chimneys) are wrongest of all”.
During the 1950s, the store continued its tradition for fashionable and eclectic design. All departments in the shop had a collection of both contemporary and traditional designs. New designers were promoted and often included those still representing 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, Exeter and Norwich.
During the 1960s, extravagant and Eastern influences once again became fashionable, as well as the Art Deco style, and Liberty adapted its furnishing designs from its archive.
LIBERTY PRINT ‘CONSTANTIA,’ 1961
In 1996, Liberty announced the closure of all of its department stores outside London, and instead focused on small shops at airports.
Since 1988, Liberty has had a subsidiary in Japan which sells Liberty-branded products in major Japanese shops. It also sells Liberty fabrics to international and local fashion stores with bases in Japan.
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 a sale. Subsequently, in 2010, Liberty was taken over by private equity firm BlueGem Capital in a deal worth £32 million.
In 2013, Liberty was the focus of a three-part hour-long episode TV documentary series titled Liberty of London, airing on Channel 4. The documentary follows Ed Burstell (Managing Director) and the department’s retail team in the busy lead up to Christmas 2013.
Channel 4 further commissioned a second series of the documentary on 28 October 2014. This series featured four, one hour-long episodes based on six months worth of unprecedented footage. Series two aired in 2014.
Liberty has a 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.
Recent collaborations include brands such as Scott Henshall, Nike, Dr. Martens, Hello Kitty, Barbour, House of Hackney, Vans, Onia, Manolo Blahnik, Uniqlo, Superga, Drew Pritchard of Salvage Hunters and antique lighting specialist Fritz Fryer.
The website for Liberty also has these suggestions for you to watch for as you sally throughout the sprawling store:
The clock on the Kingly Street entrance of the Liberty store has some words of wisdom for the shoppers who pass by. It says “No minute gone comes back again, take heed and see ye do nothing in vain.” Above the clock, the striking of the hour chime brings out figures of St. George and the Dragon, to recreate their legendary battle every sixty minutes. On each corner of the clock are the angels of the Four Winds: Uriel (south), Michael (east), Raphael (west), and Gabriel (north).