Few people can claim to have been quite so influential in the history of modern design as Arthur Lasenby Liberty. From a small shop, opened in 1875 on the corner of Regent Street he was to popularize an idiom now known and revered world wide simply as "Liberty style".
Arthur Lasenby Liberty was born in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, England in 1843. In 1862 Liberty began employment at Messrs Farmer and Rogers in Regent Street, the same year as the International Exhibition at Kensington in London. Within the exhibition was a section devoted to Japan, the first major presentation of its kind in Europe.
When the exhibition closed, Farmers and Rogers, who were already doing considerable trade in Indian shawls, purchased some of the Japanese exhibits to form the basis of an Oriental warehouse that they opened next door to the main shop. Liberty was chosen to work at the warehouse and two years later was appointed its manager.
When Liberty was 30 he became engaged to Emma Louise Blackmore. Liberty had also been manager of the Oriental Warehouse for ten years. In 1874 he asked to become a partner at Farmer and Rogers, he was refused and was told the business could not support another partner. Liberty decided to leave Farmer and Rogers and start his own company. Liberty believed he could change the look of fashion and house wares.
In 1875 with the help of a £2000 loan from his future father in-law, Liberty & Co. opened in half a shop at 218 Regent St. directly across from Farmers and Rogers. Liberty could only afford to employ a 16-year-old girl and a Japanese boy. Fortune smiled at him and on opening day William Judd, one of Liberty’s colleagues decided to follow him in his new endeavor. His shop opened selling ornaments, fabric and objects d'art from Japan and the East. In less than 18 months he had paid back the loan and acquired the other half of the shop at 218 Regent St.
In 1885, 142-4 Regent Street were acquired and housed the ever-increasing demand for carpets and furniture. The basement was called the "Eastern Bazaar" home to all things described as "decorative furnishing objects". He named the property Chesham House after the place in which he grew up.
During the 1880’s and 90’s Liberty watched the rise of many craft guilds. The guilds produced very high quality work but the high cost of so many individual man-hours made their work available only to the elite. Liberty if nothing else was a shrewd businessman and realized the need for less expensive merchandise. In it's early days Liberty & Co had enjoyed the patronage of luminaries such as Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Whistler and Lord Leighton, but Liberty was aware of the precarious nature of such dependency.
He began to import the lines of Kayserzinn and WMF pewter from Germany. Both of these companies had successfully married cheap production costs with artistic design to produce sophisticated metal ware for a mass market. Unlike the work of the Guilds their produce was created using the automated techniques of spinning and die-casting. Around the same time Liberty met Archibald Knox and in 1899 he decided to start production of his own line of silverware and jewelry bearing his assay mark, first at his shop then at the 1899 Arts and Crafts exhibition. With that Liberty’s Cymric line was born.
Liberty still wanted to reach an even bigger market than his silver could provide and so in 1902 he decided to release his Tudric line of pewter. Beginning in 1899 and continuing for the next 18 years Liberty’s style was deeply rooted in the style of his friend and head designer Archibald Knox.
Liberty’s style continued strong up until the 1920’s and finally began to decline After his death in 1917 Liberty & Co. designs lost their pioneering spirit. As the 20’s progressed and Art Deco became the rage, Liberty & Co. designs became simpler and more traditional having lost the pioneering spirit of its founder. I think it is surely a fitting tribute to the great man that a century after the instigation of his range of silver and pewter, Cymric and Tudric wares are prized more highly today than ever.
Visits to the Tate Gallery, London
Visit to the Liberty & Co. Gallery, London