The founder of Liberty, Arthur Lasenby Liberty, was born in 1843 in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, to a draper. Beginning work at 16, he was apprenticed to a draper, however, Liberty instead decided to take a job at Farmer and Rogers, a women’s fashions specialist in Regent Street, rising quickly up the ranks.
It was the age of great exhibitions and the International Exhibition in Kensington coincided with Liberty’s first year of work for the firm. For the first time in Europe the exhibition showcased a Japanese pavilion, which was hugely popular with visitors. Farmer and Rogers bought a lot of the Japanese goods after the exhibition closed and opened their Oriental Warehouse, which Liberty was given the task of managing. The Oriental Warehouse soon became the most profitable part of the business, with artists like Whistler, Rossetti and William Morris as its customers. Liberty struck up friendships with these customers and visited their studios and advised them on purchases, so when Liberty decided to leave Farmer and Rogers to set up his own business on Regent Street, they promised they would come to him instead.
Inspired by more than 10 years of service, Liberty decided to open his own store. He borrowed £2,000 from his soon-to-be father-in-law and took a lease on one half of a shop at 218a Regent Street, opening Liberty & Co in 1875 with only three members of staff.
Liberty didn’t want to run just another store — he harboured a dream of an Eastern Bazaar in London that could fundamentally change homeware and fashion. His collection of ornaments, fabrics and objects d’art from the Far East captured the attention of London, already in the crux of orientalist fervour. 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.
The shop was christened Liberty of London and absolutely flourished. Not only was Liberty echoing artistic movements of the time, but it was guiding and contributing to them too. The Aesthetic Movement and the Arts and Crafts Movement were steered partly by Liberty. And fashion was changing as well as art, women were moving away from tight, corseted Victorian clothing and looking to Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic paintings to inspire them. Along with inspiration from fabrics from the East which were more lightweight and delicate. Liberty saw an opportunity and they began to produce in house textiles in a ‘house style’, using techniques borrowed from the West to produce new types of fabric to suit these customers.
Liberty silks soon became a hugely important part of the growing Aesthetic Movement. But Liberty was not only producing textiles, they began branching out to furniture, dressmaking and much more. Liberty wares were highly in demand and soon customers from all over the country wanted their houses furnished with Liberty.
From the beginning, the store also imported antiques and held exhibitions, with the original V&A museum actually purchasing pieces of Eastern embroidery and rugs for its collection.
Soon, Liberty became one of the most fashionable shopping destinations in the city. Oscar Wilde once said: "Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper."
During the 1890s, Liberty built strong relationships with many English designers. Many of these designers, including Archibald Knox, practised the artistic styles known as Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau, and Liberty helped develop Art Nouveau through his encouragement of such designers. The company became associated with this new style, to the extent that in Italy, Art Nouveau became known as the Stile Liberty, after the London shop.
In 1899, Archibald Knox began to design pieces for the Cymric range of silverware for Liberty & Co., so named to reflect its Celtic-inspired designs. These were some of the finest, most brilliantly designed silverware pieces of the day. Knox’s unique ability to combine beauty and form harmoniously with function was evident in the stunning pieces he created.
Liberty was already selling pewter items by Kayser and WMF, among other and Liberty purchased a 50% share of William Haseler, a manufacturing silversmiths in Birmingham, to produce the stores metalwork. The pewter range ‘Tudric’ was born, under the direction of John Llewellyn, using Knox designs as well as many other designers such as Jessie King, Oliver Baker, Bernard Cuzner, and David Veasey.
Arthur Lasenby Liberty died in 1917, his headstone being designed by Archibald Knox.
By 1924 the Grade II-listed, iconic mock-Tudor store known today was finished, and was constructed with the timbers of two ships — the HMS Hindustan and HMS Impregnable.
Throughout the following decades Liberty continued to champion eclectic design, particularly in the 50s and 60s. Today, the store continues its long tradition of in-house collaborations with designers to produce exclusive, covetable fashion and accessories