Founded in 1875, the name of Liberty is synonymous with Art Nouveau ornaments and Arts & Crafts Furniture. Employing designers of the calibre of William Morris, Archibald Knox and Leonard Wyburd, Liberty created iconic originals which drew their inspiration from all four corners of the globe.
Arthur Lasenby Liberty , the founder of Liberty of London , was a man of vision with a thirst for foreign culture. Born in Chesham, Buckinghamshire in 1843, he began working at Farmer and Rogers of Regent Street, in 1862 – the year of the Great London Exposition. In 1874 he decided to open his own store, with the intention of revolutionising home design and fashion.
From Chinese antique cabinets to the Art Nouveau movement
With the aid of a family loan, Arthur Liberty took out a small lease, opening Liberty & Co in Regent Street, in 1875. Initially it was an Oriental warehouse, selling imported fabrics and ornaments from Japan and the Middle East. This included ‘Anglo-Oriental’ bamboo furniture , some of it made by local craftsmen. The style proved very popular, and by 1883 Liberty had enlarged his premises and opened a Furnishing and Decoration studio under the direction of Leonard Wyburd.
This is where the first original Liberty designs were created, many of them inspired by foreign shores. At this time, there was a craze for Egyptology, and Liberty capitalised on this with its unique “Thebes” stool. Based on an ancient Egyptian design, it quickly became a best seller. On the strength of this, Liberty opened an “Eastern Bazaar” in his store at 142-144 Regent Street. Opened in 1885, it quickly became a fashionable shopping emporium for Pre-Raphaelite artisans.
By the 1890s, Arthur Liberty had built strong working relationships with a number of English Arts & Crafts Furniture designers, as well as Art Nouveau craftsmen like Archibald Knox, whose iconic Cymric and Tudric designs became symbolic of the Art Nouveau movement. Other Art Nouveau designers working for Liberty included C.F.A. Voysey, Walter Crane, L.F.Day and the Silver Studio, which together made Art Nouveau a mainstream art form.
Antique dining tables and softly draped curtains – the Liberty look
Liberty worked closely with many different craftsmen and wholesalers to develop the eclectic “Liberty look.” William Birch, for example, supplied the rush-seated Victorian dining chairs popular in Cumbrian antique shops today. J.S Henry supplied furniture designed by George Walton, whose antique dining chairs and settles have become museum pieces – the V & A has George Walton Liberty furniture on display.
Liberty also used German designers, such as Richard Riemerschmid, prized for his Modernistic antique dining chairs. Pewterware was introduced around 1898, importing from German designer J.P.Kayser before Archibald Knox began designing the in-house Liberty collections. Other metalware craftsmen included Oliver Baker and John Pearson, while new textile, carpet and costume ranges were developed by designers like E.W. Godwin, Thomas Wardle, Voysey and Morton & Co.
Sir Arthur Lazenby Liberty died in 1917, though the Liberty name lives on. Today, collectors from Cornwall to Cumbria hunt down the rustic Victorian dining chairs and antique marquetry furniture which once graced the Liberty Gift And Furniture catalogues.