LIBERTY & Co
English Department Store
Arthur Lasenby Liberty was born in Chesham, Buckinghamshire in 1843. He was employed at Messrs Farmer and Rogers in Regent Street in 1862, the year of the International Exhibition at Kensington in London. By 1874, inspired by his 10 years of service, Arthur then decided to start a business of his own, believing that he could change the look of homewares and fashion.
With a £2000 loan from his future father-in-law, Arthur Liberty took on the lease of half a shop at 218a Regent Street opposite Farmers and Rogers. Liberty could only afford to employ a young girl of 16 and a Japanese boy. But on the day of opening William Judd a colleague of Liberty from Farmers and Rogers decided to follow him in his new venture.
The shop opened in 1875 selling ornaments, fabric and objets d'art from Japan and the East. Within eighteen months Liberty had repaid the loan and acquired the second half of 218 Regent Street. As the business grew neighbouring properties were bought and added.
Even in the early days Liberty realised there was a deterioration of the fine quality of goods in Japan, and began to source elsewhere around the world. Java, India, Indochina and Persia. Eastern fabrics were becoming too delicate to be used by dressmakers and furnishers, and therefore Liberty looked to English dyers and manufacturers to experiment in the production of Eastern style fabrics. Liberty wanted to give the ordinary person the chance to buy beautiful things.
Liberty, the store, became the most fashionable place to shop in London and the fabrics were used for both clothing and furnishings. Its clientele was exotic, and included famous members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Rossetti, Leighton and Burne-Jones. The demand Liberty created soon began to outstrip sources of supply and he decided to import ready woven fabric and dye or print it in the UK. He achieved this by using the expertise of two printing companies - Thomas Wardle of Leek in Staffordshire and Edmund Littler of Merton Abbey in Surrey.
By the 1890's, Liberty was taking up the entire production at Littlers printworks. The hand block printed quality that Littler used became synonymous with "Liberty Art Fabrics". In 1881 William Morris, a competitor of Liberty, acquired a paintworks downstream from Liberty on the River Wandle. Liberty is believed to have said "we send our dirty water downstream to Morris". Liberty purchased the Merton printworks in 1904
Godwin died in 1886 but his inspiration continued throughout the company. His death along with that of Rossetti in 1882, William Morris in 1896, and the departure of Whistler to live in Paris seemed to indicate the end of the Aesthetic movement. A new movement was approaching and Liberty would be a key leader in its development.
In the 1890's Arthur Lasenby Liberty was on good terms with many leading English designers. Many of the designers used by Liberty were key figures in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements.
These figures included Lindsay P. Butterfield, a leading figure in textiles, and Archibald Knox, a fine designer in all areas of art. Liberty was instrumental in the development of Art Nouveau through his encouragement of such designers. He proceeded to make the store one of the most prestigious and profitable in London.
The influence of the Liberty style in the Art Nouveau period would be such that in Italy, for instance, the Art Nouveau style is called: "Stile Liberty".