Sweet liberty is in our hands
Vibrant, beautiful and, above all, instantly recognisable, Liberty prints have managed to stay in fashion for more than a century. Matthew Dennison discovers how they became imprinted on the British consciousness
Liberty prints have managed to stay in fashion for more than a century, discovers Matthew Dennison
FROM the very beginning, Liberty fabrics were all about colour: from its opening in 1875, the London department store sold imported silks, notable for their soft textures and vibrant, vegetable-dyed hues, alongside exotic fabrics sourced from as far afield as Japan. ‘Liberty’s have people working for them all over the Oriental world,’ a journalist wrote at the time. ‘Quaint, parchment-skinned pedlars are wandering throughout the length and breadth of China gathering together ancient embroideries of wonderful colourings, and throughout Persia and among the temples of India the same thing is going on.’
In the 1880s, Sir Arthur Liberty described ‘the British dressmaker’ as ‘deadly opposed’ to soft fabrics: ‘She was accustomed to work on hard, stiff lines, and the new material gave her more trouble.’ The shop’s decidedly arty early clientele disagreed and Sir Arthur ploughed ahead with his own range of fabrics.
It was advertised as Liberty Art Fabrics and employed Thomas Wardle & Co, of Leek, Staffordshire, as principal dyer and printer, with Edmund Littler & Co, at Merton Abbey on the banks of the River Wandle, south London, closer to home.
At least one early design, a printed cotton of 1882 by Christopher Dresser, showing dragons against a fretted background, suggests that Liberty didn’t consciously reject contemporary decorative styles. Over the course of the next decade, however, the company’s fabrics swapped dragons for flowers and it was the acquisition of extensive new premises at Chesham House, Regent Street, that inspired Sir Arthur to expand his fledgling emporium to include a clothing department in 1883.
Thus began the evolution of the distinctive, floriferous prints with which the Liberty name remains synonymous more than a century later, used to adorn everything from curtains and skirts to spectacle cases, egg cosies, Roberts radios and pocket diaries. There have been design collaborations with Vivienne Westwood, Nike and Barbour—the latter resulted in a wax jacket trimmed with a Liberty version of William Morris’s Strawberry Thief fabric of the 1880s.
Sir Arthur bought designs from a range of artists and manufacturers and, in 1898, one of the company’s directors, John Howe, commented: ‘It is no matter to us where a design comes from, so long as it possesses merits worthy to be put before the public by the House of Liberty.’
After his appointment in 1889, John Llewellyn of Liberty’s silk department commissioned designs exclusive to Liberty from designers including Charles Voysey.
An early commercial relationship with Arthur Silver’s
Silver Studio resulted in the production of designs by Harry Napper, whose patterns, like those of Voysey, used stylised flowers and foliage in a manner that placed Liberty at the forefront of evolving British taste. His 1902 Kimberley design of large-scale poppies and swirling, acanthus-like leaves was a Jacquard woven cotton, produced as furnishing fabric.
‘We flatter ourselves that we have created a new “English” period,’ Llewellyn noted of decorating trends in 1898. He may have had in mind designs such as Lindsay Butterfield’s Hydrangeas of 1896, with its dense, all-over pattern of flowerheads and Morris & Co-inspired foliage. Even at the outset, Liberty’s use of floral motifs was associated with a quintessential Englishness that its products have retained.
The company would prove both advocate and beneficiary of the Art Nouveau movement—sinuous natural forms translated easily into fabric and wallpaper patterns. Liberty’s current head of archiving, Anna Buruma, attributes the appeal of the designs to their ‘innovative and quirky’ qualities. In the first decades of the 20th century, those qualities were realised to the full in a series of bold, floral fabrics that Liberty designers of the 1960s would successfully recolour and rebrand as the Lotus Collection, an aspect of Swinging Sixties cool tinged by nostalgia.
By the late 1930s, Liberty fabrics were so popular and such a key aspect of the shop’s stock in trade that a wholesale company, Liberty of London Prints, was formed to take advantage of growing demand. Designs increasingly erred on the side of conservatism, with more experimental patterns confined to silk scarves.
In the previous decade, one of the company’s buyers, William Haynes Porell, had discovered a silken cotton yarn in Ethiopia, close to Lake Tana —branded as Tana Lawn, the fabric proved ideally suited for printing with multi-coloured, all-over designs and has been used continuously for Liberty-print clothing, from children’s frocks to men’s ties.
In July 1941, ‘somewhere in the country’, Queen Elizabeth posed for photographs with her daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. The Queen wore three rows of pearls and a summer frock of a Liberty Tana Lawn-style floral pattern in pink, purple and blue against a white ground. With the Second World War not yet at its halfway point, the colour pictures represented propaganda of the gentlest variety.
For Liberty, a combination of innovation and careful revision of designs in the company’s extensive archives has contributed to its long-term survival. Today, its instantly recognisable designs are printed onto a range of fabrics, from velvet and linen mixes to Tana Lawn cotton and cord. New designs have been produced alongside more ‘typical’ patterns, which maintain brand identity despite changing fashions—a key aspect of Liberty philosophy, according to head of design at Liberty Art Fabrics, Emma Mawston.
The best-known pattern was French in origin: Ianthe, an Art Nouveau design created by R. Beauclair in 1900, was possibly inspired by violets. It was afterwards redrawn by David Haward’s studio and has been produced in colourways from shocking pink to ochre and elephant grey. In its original colourway of mid-blue, burgundy and purple, it is a signature Liberty fabric: arresting and venerable, unusual and reassuringly familiar.